BELGRADE, Sept 17 — Serbia's lesbian prime minister today joined hundreds of activists with rainbow flags for Belgrade's annual gay march, an event held under heavy security in the conservative country.
Ana Brnabic, 41, became one of the first openly gay government leaders in the world when she came to power in June, but activists say homophobia remains a widespread problem in Serbia.
"The Serbian government is there for all citizens, both majority and minority, to show that it respects diversity," Brnabic said before joining the Pride parade, Beta news agency reported.
In 2010, the parade descended into clashes between anti-gay protesters and police, injuring more than a hundred people and prompting the event to be banned for three years.
This is the fourth consecutive year the march has gone ahead under a large security presence, and the first time a prime minister has attended.
A helicopter buzzed overhead as marchers walked through the cordoned-off city centre.
About 2,000 police officers were deployed — less than half the number on duty for last year's peaceful parade, according to organisers.
"You can see the borders of freedom are shifting and, in this respect, our society has made great progress in recent years," Brnabic said in an interview published today in the newspaper Politika.
Brnabic was selected to be premier by her predecessor, Aleksandar Vucic, after he was elected president. She entered politics less than a year earlier as public administration minister.
The surprise move made international headlines, but sceptics suspected an attempt at "pinkwashing," with Brnabic used as a puppet by Vucic to improve Serbia's image as it campaigns to join the European Union.
Critics accuse Vucic, who remains the country's most powerful politician, of being a populist authoritarian who has clamped down on media freedom.
Some also suspect that his SNS party's hard-right roots gives it leverage over some far-right organisations and the ability to deter them from disrupting Pride.
At a conference on hate speech on Friday, Brnabic dismissed as "nonsense" the accusation that she had been chosen merely because of her sexual orientation.
A technocrat with a business background, Brnabic has expressed hope in interviews that people will look beyond her sexual orientation, distancing herself from LGBT issues.
Activist groups are campaigning for the adoption of a law on same-sex partnerships, for which they hope to win the premier's support.
Ivana Mitrovic, a 35-year-old attending the parade from the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad, was sceptical of the prime minister's involvement.
"I don't like the government. It's all for show," she told AFP.
But others said Brnabic's participation and visibility could inspire young gay and transgender people, even in small villages where conservativism is entrenched.
"For me that's a good thing," said Nevena Pupic, 34, an activist and financial officer from Belgrade. — AFP