Serbia Appoints First Gay and Female Prime Minister

The announcement is particularly noteworthy, given the nation’s longstanding conservatism—but experts fear it could do little to effect social change.

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Forty-one-year-old Ana Brnabić is set to become both the first gay and first female prime minister of Serbia following her nomination by the nation’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, on Thursday evening. In an announcement first reported by Serbia’s B92 news agency, Vučić said he would be giving Brnabić a mandate to form a new government—a decision that is unlikely to be contested in parliament, where the president’s Serbian Progressive Party maintains a firm majority. Although Brnabić is nonpartisan, she is considered loyal to Vučić.

The nomination, which is unprecedented even by international standards, is especially noteworthy in Serbia, a country known for its widespread homophobia. Homosexuality was officially considered an illness in Serbia prior to 2008, when the Serbian Medical Society decided to undo the classification in response to mounting public pressure. By 2010, research from the Gay Straight Alliance indicated that 67 percent of Serbians still considered homosexuality an illness, while 53 percent believed that state institutions should actively suppress homosexuality. In a statement to The Guardian on Thursday, civil rights activist Goran Miletić indicated that these figures had not changed much in recent years. Although same-sex relationships have been legal in Serbia since 1994, same-sex couples are denied the same citizenship rights and legal protections as heterosexual couples.

With Serbia’s Christian Orthodox and ultra-nationalist groups fundamentally opposed to homosexuality, anti-gay sentiment in the nation has frequently translated into violent action. In 2001, an annual gay pride parade in Belgrade resulted in violent clashes between police officers and anti-gay rioters, leaving 78 officers and 17 civilians injured. In the years since, the parade has often been suspended due to security concerns. As late as 2010, anti-gay rioters continued to wreak havoc on the parade, throwing petrol bombs and stones at police officers and even setting the office of the Democratic Party on fire.

The president’s announcement on Thursday made no mention of this violent history, instead choosing to highlight Brnabić’s “professional skills and personal qualities,” including her hard-working nature. Before entering the political realm last year, Brnabić worked in the wind power industry and for U.S.-funded development projects. Prior to that, she attended the U.K.’s University of Hull, where she earned a degree in marketing. Brnabić’s political career began last year when Vučić appointed her as minister of public administration and local self-government. At the time, Brnabić seemed unfazed by her title as Serbia’s first openly gay government minister. “Hopefully this will blow over in three or four days,” she told the Associated Press.

The title, however, is significant for political reasons as well. Many suspect that Brnabić’s recent nomination is a way for Vučić to appeal to western allies. Serbia is also currently seeking membership to the European Union, which will likely require the nation to demonstrate further tolerance. Brnabić’s lack of political experience also makes her an ideal choice for Vučić, who was reportedly keen on appointing someone to promote his own agenda. Indeed, Vučić is likely to remain the most powerful figure in Serbian politics, with Brnabić acquiring a more symbolic authority.

“I do not believe that Brnabić will lead or have an impact on foreign policy,” Boban Stojanović, a political scientist at the University of Belgrade, told The Guardian. “This will remain the exclusive domain of President Vučić.” He added that Brnabić’s status as Serbia’s first openly gay prime minister may even be a hindrance to the nation’s social progress:

The problem is that it will mask the real picture of the situation of civil and human rights in Serbia. The choice of a member of the LGBT community for prime minister will be used as an indicator of the state of civil and human rights, and that is not realistic.

Whether Brnabić’s appointment will establish a new social precedent or disguise the deep-seated homophobia of Orthodox and ultra-nationalist groups remains to be seen. At the very least, it signals an advancement from past decades, when appointing a gay female prime minister would have been unheard of, if not impossible to achieve.