Valerie Hopkins is a freelance journalist working in the Balkans.
Imagine that you’re the well-established leader of a Balkan country, solidly in control of the ruling party, and you’ve decided that in order to remain in power you must gradually undermine the democratic institutions that have been built up in the years since the collapse of communism a generation ago. You’ve already begun ratcheting up the pressure on the media, intimidating your political opponents, and quietly eroding checks and balances.
But there’s a problem: You’re also trying to join the European Union, which you know will boost your popularity with voters. And that won’t work unless you can convince Brussels that you’re a trustworthy liberal democrat who respects diversity and values tolerance. What to do?
In the case of Serbia, you name a young, Western-educated LGBT woman as prime minister. That, at any rate, is what President Aleksandar Vucic has done. Now the question is whether anyone will take the appointment seriously.
The nominee, 41-year-old Ana Brnabic, has no party affiliation and has never been elected to any position. She entered politics last year, when Vucic made her minister of public administration and local self-government. While the role of president is supposed to be largely ceremonial, it is widely expected that Vucic will continue to hold the reins of power. He even said as much, announcing that Brnabic will focus only on the economy, while former prime minister Ivica Dacic will “essentially lead the political part” of the government.(Paradoxically, Dacic, who like Vucic began his political career as an ally of former Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, has a history of making homophobic comments.)
Serbia, which became an E.U. candidate in 2012 but retains close relations to Moscow, is a socially conservative country: just under half of respondents in a 2012 poll said that “homosexuality is an illness that should be treated.” A Pride parade in 2010 ended in violence after almost 150 people were injured when they were attacked by anti-gay protesters. Pride parades were not permitted again by authorities until 2014. In recent years they’ve been highly militarized, with some 5,000 policemen protecting the route.
Vucic’s decision was immediately lauded by western media and welcomed by international diplomats. But some observers are skeptical. They say that Serbia is trying to reassure the West that it supports European values while masking a trend of rising authoritarianism.
Since the nomination, many in the president’s party and in the ruling coalition have complained about the selection of Brnabic because of her sexual orientation and for days her approval by the Serbian parliament was in question. Vucic seems to have whipped up enough support to ensure her election. Still, there are widespread doubts about how much she will actually be able to achieve.
Koen Slootmaeckers, a Serbia-watcher at Queen Mary University of London, says that the nomination is merely the latest example of the president’s strategy of “tactical Europeanization,” in which he pays lip-service to so-called Western values while eroding democratic norms. “Nominating Brnabic as PM is an effort to placate western opinion and give them an argument for the E.U. commissioners and chancellors and diplomats that he can’t actually be so bad if he is nominating gay woman to be PM,” said Slootmaeckers.
Given the weakness of the opposition, Eurocrats see Vucic as the most important politician in Serbia and assume that he is the key to maintaining peace in the restive region. Many European policymakers believe that former nationalist strongmen are the only leaders in the Balkans who can deliver on the reforms necessary to bring their countries into the E.U. fold. Florian Bieber, director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria, refers to this approach as “stabilitocracy.”
In the case of Serbia, European leaders are prioritizing delicate negotiations with Kosovo, whose independence Belgrade still does not recognize, as well as getting Belgrade to join ongoing efforts to check Russia’s growing regional influence. But this strategy of relying on one person carries a risk of long-term damage to democracy and is already making some otherwise pro-E.U. Serbs fed up with the bloc.
On Friday, Vucic was feted at an inauguration his party compared to the funeral of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, who led Yugoslavia from the end of World War II until his death in 1980. The leaders of 38 countries were present at the funeral, a testament to Tito’s role as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. That tradition of balancing between East and West is popular with the Serbian public, and it is one that Vucic likes to emulate.
Brnabic will likely be sworn in on June 30 with far less fanfare. One Serbian lifestyle website summed up its expectations for her term with an article entitled “42 things that will change in Serbia with a gay PM.” Next to each number in the listicle is an empty space, except for number 42, which simply says “NOTHING.”