Home Page
30 Jun 17

Tokens and Taboos in Serbia

Srdjan Garcevic

Pinkwashing or not, the appointment of Ana Brnabic as PM was a good move for human rights in Serbia.

Ana Brnabic is one of the very few openly out people in a country where attacks on LGBT people are still common. Photo: Beta

Since the assassination of Zoran Djindjic in 2003, Serbian politics rarely makes world news. However, Aleksandar Vucic’s decision to appoint Ana Brnabic as his successor for the (nominally) top job in the Serbian government briefly put Serbia in the spotlight. Unlike the majority of coverage over the past few decades, this time the response was very positive.

Brnabic, who was sworn in on Thursday, is the first openly gay prime minister in Serbian history, and is also the first woman heading up the Serbian government since socialism.

The appointment was met with surprise even in Serbia, given that the country (like most of the Balkan countries) has a rather poor record with LGBT rights.

Ana Brnabic is one of the very few openly out people in a country where attacks on LGBT people are still common. It was not too long ago that Pride parades in Serbia were targeted by violent traditionalists and football hooligans. Even today Belgrade Pride is a fearful affair, heavily guarded by the police.

General discourse is also very homophobic. Brnabic’s sexual orientation was openly used by certain politicians and the Serbian Orthodox Church as a potentially disqualifying factor for the job. In this context, it is understandable why the media spun this as yet another victory for diversity and equal rights.

However, liberal sceptics in Serbia immediately denounced the appointment as “pinkwashing” and an attempt by Vucic to present himself as more liberal to appease Serbia’s western partners and hide his autocratic tendencies.

In one way, Brnabic’s appointment itself shows Vucic’s degree of power in the country, as it is highly unlikely that she would ever have been able to gain power due to rampant homophobia.

According to one study from 2015, quoted by Vojvodina’s ombudsman, more than a half of the Serbian population considers homosexuality a threat to society.

Last week, there was even doubt over whether Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), would vote for Brnabic in parliament. The chief whip of SNS, Aleksandar Martinovic, was warned against expressing anti-LGBT views in front of Brnabic during one parliamentary session.

The extent to which the appointment of a person from a marginalised group can help reduce injustice in the society is also questionable. The belief in the power of symbolism is quite strong, and was one of the key points in the Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

The argument that having a woman in the White House would shatter the glass ceiling and decrease sexism was frequently voiced by Democratic pundits and even referenced in her concession speech.

While representation in high-level positions is certainly important to break down societal taboos and heighten visibility, recent evidence indicates that it is far from sufficient.

Perceptions of the quality of racial relations worsened in the US under President Obama’s term, due to events like the Ferguson shooting and Black Lives Matter protests. In the UK, even after Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, and the Queen, sexism in the boardrooms and the media is still a lively topic.

It should also be noted that while Obama, Thatcher and May were elected and enjoyed high approval at least for some time during their tenures, Brnabic would most probably have never been the Prime Minister of Serbia if she stood for election.

To make things worse, in the Balkans there is also a disastrous tendency for politicians to treat minority rights as a concession to their foreign partners in order to get benefits, like EU accession, rather than as a necessary cornerstone for genuinely ensuring equality to all citizens.

Unfortunately, it is safe to say that the fight for equality in Serbia with regards to gender and sexual orientation is far from over.

Nevertheless, the value of Brnabic’s appointment can be seen more clearly if we consider what a disastrous signal Vucic would have sent out if he had not appointed her. Brnabic, unlike other contenders for the top job, from the current foreign minister Ivica Dacic to any of the SNS apparatchiks that were mooted, has a significant business track record outside of politics and no major scandals to her name.

Even some of those who are against the current government, where she served as a minister, consider her to be the most competent option. By not choosing her, Vucic would have not only pandered to the traditionalists and anti-LGBT sentiment, he would have appointed somebody less competent.

Brnabic, like any other politician, should be judged by her policies and performance and it remains to be seen if she will use her relative position of power to fight for greater equality of all Serbian citizens.

It is likely that she will be very cautious in order to avoid being seen “as pushing the LGBT agenda.” Although she participated in last year’s Pride parade, as a minister she announced that she will not use her platform to further LGBT rights in Serbia.

Furthermore, the official line is that Brnabic in her new role will be more concerned with Serbia’s economic policy, rather than politics, which will be left to Dacic.

Nevertheless, the rumoured upcoming redrafting of the Serbian constitution might give her space for ensuring stronger protection of human rights and maybe pushing for civil partnerships or even marriage equality.

Even if she attained her position due to pinkwashing, Brnabic was the best option for Serbia, given the current circumstances.

Although one token lesbian prime minister will not change the homophobic culture in Serbia nor solve gender inequality, at least we can assume that when she speaks about women’s and LGBT rights she will see them as something essential, rather than as a headache imposed by some foreigners to get us money.

Srdjan Garcevic is a writer and a founder of The Nutshell Times blog.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus

Premium Selection

20 Feb 18

Birdwatching Paradise on the Borders of Belgrade

Beljarica, a floodplain on the left bank of the Danube, is home to more than 130 species of bird, and several mammals, fish, and amphibians. But now, it faces an imminent threat. 

20 Feb 18

Montenegrins Spy Gold on California’s Cannabis Farms

Impoverished, indebted and disillusioned Montenegrins are heading off to California where they can earn hundreds of dollars a day on licensed marijuana plantations.