Serbia’s New Lesbian Prime Minister: A Symbolic Step Forward?

In Serbia, is the recent appointment of Ana Brnabic to the office of prime minister indicative of a new commitment to LGBT rights — or a smokescreen?


On the evening of Thursday, June 15, news broke that Serbia would have an openly lesbian prime minister. Immediate reactions from the global LGBT community and Western media would best be described as ecstatic. As the story developed, my Twitter and Facebook feeds were overwhelmed by people congratulating Serbia on the “historic” appointment of Ana Brnabic to the post, a double first for the country — the first woman, and the first openly LGBT prime minister.

Many media outlets also highlighted the fact that just seven years ago, the 2010 Pride parade in Serbia was marred by riots, and that the appointment of Ana Brnabic was indicative of the “progress” the country had made with respect to acceptance and tolerance. To cite one example, the BBC stated that “Just a few years ago, the appointment would have been unthinkable. But EU hopeful Serbia can present it as proof of increasing tolerance.” And although the BBC remained cautious in its interpretation of the political meaning of the appointment, its Belgrade-based correspondent Guy De Launey argued that the symbolism of Brnabic’s appointment carries real weight. While the EU has yet to formally comment on the developments, one can anticipate that Serbia will be commended for its “progress” on LGBT rights. Indeed, as early as Friday, the European Parliament Intergroup on LGBTI Rights shared the news on its Facebook page with the comment “Wonderful news from Serbia”.

However, should we really consider the appointment of a lesbian prime minister in Serbia as proof of tangible “progress” in the country? Perhaps not!

Though I would not want to make the claim that the appointment of an openly LGBT person as Prime Minister would have no (potential) positive effects on life for LGBT people in Serbia — one can, for example, optimistically imagine that such an appointment might send out the message to LGBT people that they can make it professionally, even when out — I would caution against uncritically accepting such interpretations, especially not as sure-fire proof of Serbia’s progress from a country where LGBT people were beaten on the streets when organising a pride parade in the past to a country where a lesbian woman can now easily assume the office of prime minister. Indeed, rather than taking this development at face value — as a sign of Serbia’s progress with regard to LGBT rights — I argue that Brnabic’s appointment is a continuation of President Aleksandar Vucic’s politics of tactical Europeanisation, in which LGBT issues like the pride parade are used to speak to the EU’s self-proclaimed LGBT-friendly identity without engaging with LGBT issues domestically.

Ana Brnabic (photo credit: wikicommons)

In the past and again this week, international observers have been quick to respond to small improvements in LGBT rights practices with great enthusiasm, as if every small step taken in the context of Serbia represents a major shift in the country — moving from backwards and homophobic to modern and LGBT friendly. Such a superficial reading of Pride events, and similarly Brnabic’s appointment as prime minister, not only reifies a problematic East-West dichotomy (which I cannot comment on here), but more importantly obscures the underlying politics in which LGBT rights have been instrumentalised by the Serbian government to guarantee and advance Serbia’s progress as part of the EU accession process.

Indeed, recent developments in Serbia are in keeping with existing practices in Serbian politics with respect to LGBT issues. My research on LGBT rights in Serbia has shown that advancements in the protection of LGBT rights should be read within the context of Serbia’s EU accession process, as homonationalist moves to demonstrate Europeanness without engaging with the lived experiences of LGBT people in Serbia. For example, consider the anti-discrimination law adopted in 2009 as part of the EU visa liberalisation process. Despite it having being on the books for eight years, the law’s implementation remains minimal. Here, the lack of political engagement and will to engage in actions that would end discrimination against LGBT people is a significant barrier to its implementation. My research has shown that the institutions responsible for protecting citizens from discrimination (the ombudsman and the commissioner for the protection of equality) often face indirect political pressure to speak out on the topic and not pursue politically sensitive cases. The anti-discrimination strategy (2013) and action plan (2014), remain under-implemented and little is done to improve court practices regarding anti-discrimination cases or to improve the treatment LGBT victims receive by police officers. Tackling the roots of hate crimes and discrimination remains a topic of low political priority.

The tactical use of LGBT rights becomes even more visible when one considers the country’s Pride Parades. When Pride re-appeared in Belgrade on 2014, this was only done with an eye on the political points the government would score by successfully protecting such an event (for more background on this pride event, see some of my previous writing here and here). The return of Belgrade Pride is best understood as what I have labelled ‘tactical Europeanisation’, i.e. an act of compliance to communicate to the EU a readiness to Europeanise by aligning oneself with certain ‘European norms’. Indeed, as international observers have treated Pride as a litmus test for Europeanness, the protection of the 2014 and subsequent Belgrade Prides represent a homonationalist move on the part of the Serbian government that wishes to align itself with the EU’s self-proclaimed pro-LGBT identity, with the tactical aim to advance in the accession process.

This being the case, it is here that the uncritical engagement of international observers with LGBT politics in Serbia has done its harm. While Serbia was widely commended by international observers for holding the Pride (as is the case this week for having appointed a Lesbian as prime minister), the Pride itself has been ‘co-opted’ by the state, making it a ritual march void of local LGBT politics.  Indeed, Vucic — who described the Pride as “a leisurely walk” — used the event to emphasise the state’s (or his) power and sovereignty. The militarised nature of the Pride transformed it into a ‘Ghost Pride’, i.e. a state-tolerated manifestation of Pride which takes place in a militarised ‘transparent closet’ that keeps LGBT people’s visibility strategies invisible and outside the public sphere.

The appointment of Brnabic represents a similar instrumentalisation of LGBT issues to fool and distract international observers from what is actually happening in Serbia. Why am I so sceptical? Recent developments suggest that the new PM might not have a significant impact on LGBT lives in Serbia. First, though Brnabic was appointed to the position Prime Minister, Vucic reportedly clarified that she would only lead the technical workings of the government, while current Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic — known for his homophobic statements — would lead the political workings of the new cabinet. Such a division of labour makes it relatively unlikely that this government will make tangible efforts to improve the lives of LGBT people or pay attention to their lived experiences. In fact, it is quite likely that the fact of Brnabic’s premiership will become a shield for EU criticism on Serbia’s LGBT record. And the EU will probably fall for it, because how can one perceive a country with a lesbian prime minister as a homophobic?

But what will her premiership mean for LGBT people in Serbia? Here again, I do not have high hopes. While having a publically out politician and prime minster might mean she will serve as a potential role model for LGBT people, I expect that she will not have a significant impact on people’s attitudes towards LGBT people in Serbia. In fact, comments both Brnabic and Vucic have made publicly concerning Brnabic’s sexual orientation might actually serve to reinforce the commonly held opinion that any discussion about sexual orientation should be kept “within four walls”. Consider, for example, the statements made when Brnabic was first appointed as a minister last year. At that time, Vucic said that he was only interested in her results and that “her personal choices” did not interest him. Similarly, she commented on the commotion around her sexuality by saying: “Hopefully this will blow over in three or four days and then I won’t be known as the ‘gay minister’.” While I do not want to aruge that Brnabic’s sexual orientation should be made the central point of discussion in this context, the constant displacement of sexual orientation to the private sphere does not help to overcome the existing stigma surrounding LGBT issues in Serbia.

Thus, against this background, I argue that the appointment of Brnabic should be welcomed with some healthy scepticism and not be treated as more than it is. Though the appointment carries political symbolism, we should wait for real actions to be undertaken on behalf of  LGBT people before we can say with certainty that Serbia has made progress in protecting LGBT people. Therefore, I want to urge those observing Serbia from a distance (and also those within European institutions) to listen more closely to those of us who have been engaged in analysing Serbia’s politics in greater detail. As many of my excellent colleagues have expressed in recent days, news of the appointment in Serbia should be welcomed with great scepticism and critical analysis. Indeed, many of us argue that appointing Brnabic as prime minister does not merely contribute to the further consolidation of Vucic’s authoritarian-style power — Brnabic here being the puppet of President Vucic — but also serves as a smokescreen to divert attention from Serbia’s diminishing democracy. It is about time international observers realise that symbolic politics are only that: symbolic.

I sincerely hope the future will prove me wrong, but for now, I remain sceptical and await signs of real political action to protect minorities and LGBT people in Serbia.


Cover photo credit: flickr/stefanogiantin/some rights reserved

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Koen Slootmaeckers

Koen Slootmaeckers is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London. His doctoral research focuses on the impact of EU Accession processes on the LGBT movement in the Western Balkans. Koen is also a research affiliate at Leuven International and European Studies (LINES) at the University of Leuven (Belgium), where he currently works on an edited volume entitled: The EU Enlargement and Gay Politics: The Impact of Eastern Enlargement on Rights, Activism and Prejudice (Palgrave, 2015).