Perspectives | Serbia

Is Serbia’s new government really feminist?

By - 17.11.2020

Or, how Aleksandar Vučić led Serbia into a feminist rennaisance.

After 129 days of unnecessary waiting for the parliament to form a government, Serbia finally got a new executive cabinet on October 28. Though the new coalition included a myriad of utterly problematic compromises, many media outlets — especially from outside Serbia — pointed out that 10 ministries will be headed by women.

Bearing in mind that Serbia has not suddenly decided to send patriarchy to the graveyard of failed ideas or undergone a feminist renaissance in the past four years, the following question arises: What brought about this compositional reversal?

To begin with, it is the need to camouflage the fact that the government has not accomplished much to meet the goals set out in Prime Minister Ana Brnabić’s 2017 governing program. Little has been done when it comes to introducing social security cards, establishing pay grades for public administration or reforming public companies, while the widely trumpeted fight against organized crime is not even worth mentioning.

The previous government’s term in office was marked by major scandals, devoid of accountability, which culminated in the 2020 election boycott and a parliament with no opposition and dubious legitimacy.

Since the Serbian autocracy has become too overt for its EU partners’ taste, President Aleksandar Vučić was forced to shorten the government’s shelf-life right out of the gate, announcing a snap parliamentary election for “April 3, 2022 at the latest.” However, he did not bother to explain how he has the constitutional competences to issue such a decision.

Fancying up the Potemkin backdrop

Given that it is not possible to push through any serious reforms in such a short period of time, we have set the course for a year-and-a-half-long election campaign, where the main objective will be to feign improvements in the political climate in order to strip the opposition of viable arguments for another election boycott.

The fairly gender-balanced government composition is the first step in fancying up the Potemkin backdrop. A similar development was seen when Ana Brnabić — who had publicly come out as lesbian — was first appointed to the prime-ministerial post, on the off chance that Vučić could profile himself in the EU as a progressive leader. Soon enough, it turned out that it was a classic case of pinkwashing as Brnabić did absolutely nothing to improve the status of the LGBTI+ community in Serbia. The same rebranding trick applies to the “women government,” and this is nothing new.

The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has been manipulating issues directly or indirectly pertaining to women for years.

In January 2019, the progressives launched a campaign generically titled Stop Violence Against Women. Women members of the SNS’s local committees posed with the slogan for group portraits and the regime-aligned media duly reported their announcements. All this would have been fine if misogynistic tweets by some opposition figures had not been the only form of violence the campaign touched upon.

There was not even a passing mention of the number of women killed by their partners, or the number of women raped and battered, or the fact that it had been almost a year since criminal charges for two years of sexual harassment had been pressed against their party colleague and president of the Brus municipality, Milutin Jeličić Jutka.

During the previous government, women were used as human shields whenever protests of the opposition would threaten to escalate into incidents.

On the contrary, only a month and a half after the Stop Violence initiative had been wrapped up, women officials of the SNS and women employed in companies managed by their fellow party members gathered in Brus to publicly voice their support for Jeličić. President Vučić claimed that the pressure for Jelačć to resign and face charges were just a guise and the attacks were actually directed against him.

However, this was no isolated case of violence against women being misused.

The ruler’s fake concern

During the previous government’s time in office, women were used as human shields whenever opposition protests threatened to escalate into higher-profile incidents. Amid anti-regime demonstrations in April 2019, for example, women employed in the Belgrade City Assembly physically blocked the opposition from getting into the Assembly premises, chanting (again) “Stop violence!”

In August, after protests started cropping up outside the Presidency building instead, President Vučić deployed an all-women unit of the “Cobras” (special detachment of the Military Police), cynically pleading the protesters not to “hit girls and women.” Of course, the same plea was dispensed with this July, as the police beat protesters of every gender indiscriminately.

These and numerous other cases are part of building a narrative based on a misogynistic opposition and seemingly only a government that cares for women, which has been going on for years now.

Although some opposition members — including Sergej Trifunović — use a vocabulary indisputably rife with misogyny, the constant one-sided reporting by the regime’s media gives an impression that this prejudice is far more prevalent among the opposition. In reality, Vučić has stood up in defence of high-ranking SNS officials after their misogynistic gaffes multiple times.

The tale of the new government achieving a balance in gender representation is in fact a natural continuation of women being preventively pushed to the front lines in cases when the government expects to come under fire. There is a sound reason for this.

Political crisis has been an unwavering phenomenon in Serbia for years now: Two thirds of citizens no longer have any representatives in the national institutions, while both the opposition and their voters are treated as intestinal parasites by the government. The public discourse has thus become very violent.

Since it has been calcified into a structure that is effectively out of reach of the law, the political class can only come under verbal assault, either on social media or in comment sections on various websites. Every move the government makes is met with — alongside substantive criticism — a barrage of ridicule, curses and provocation.

In this region, misogyny stems from the deeply entrenched patriarchy and the feeling that no woman is entitled to any hierarchical position set above man's.

This state of affairs has been incorporated into a mechanism for spinning any given topic. Though the government should have both an increased tolerance to critics in line with its social rank and a stringent criterion for choosing what to respond to, the reality is quite the opposite: To sidestep essential criticism, all sorts of residue is brought to the fore and then proclaimed to be the “face of the opposition.” 

Attention is paid to labile individuals who spew nasty things from their Twitter accounts with a couple of dozen followers, but not to investigative journalism pieces dealing with the Vučić family and their ties to corruption or organized crime.

Accordingly, in the next year and half — this being the length of the government’s term fixed by the president despite his constitutional competences — we are bound to have a series of situations where legitimate criticism aimed at women ministers will be cushioned by quickly shifting the focus toward potty mouths to show us how women in power are a bigger trigger for them than corruption or incompetence.

A dystopian version of Serbia

Should such misogynistic comments be brushed aside for that matter? Certainly not. In this region, misogyny stems from the deeply entrenched patriarchy as well as the feeling that no woman is entitled to any hierarchical position set above a man’s. 

However, we should not fall for the regime’s cheap subject-changing trick as Bloomberg did, for instance; having reported that the lesbian PM’s government would include 10 women ministers, they failed to observe how Serbia has de facto turned into a one-party state along the way.

In Vučić’s Serbia, the idea of gender equality is coming to fruition in its dystopian form: The gender of the ministers becomes insignificant. Not because the glass ceiling has been shattered, but because the deficit of integrity and the surplus of bootlicking have made it entirely irrelevant whether cabinet positions are filled by women or men.

Even the idea of reaping some indirect benefit for women’s rights by populating the Serbian government with more women than ever loses its rather victorious overtone if we remind ourselves that it is an autocracy-prone man who put them there and who can force them out on a mere whim.

And not only that: Such a decision would be challenged neither by the Ms. Minister who was shown the door nor by her women colleagues. Just as the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court is not a victory for American women in light of the fact that she will be pressing for the curtailment of reproductive rights, the famed 10 women ministers in the Government of Serbia will not serve as inspiration to a woman who has enough integrity not to be dependent on Vučić’s endorsement.

It is not a matter of Ana Brnabić’s cabinet being composed of “the footsoldiers of the patriarchy,” in Mona Eltahawy’s words — rather, it could be said that these women and their colleagues have built another repressive system for themselves on top of the existing one, where a raucous man is the one calling the shots yet again.

Feature image: Free press image © Jason Andrew for DLD