BELGRADE, Serbia – Serbia's future prime minister on Tuesday proposed a staunchly pro-Russia official as the defense minister, dampening hopes in the West that her nomination signaled a shift away from Moscow's influence.
State TV said Prime Minister-designate Ana Brnabic, who would be conservative Serbia's first female and first openly gay government leader, proposed a list of Cabinet ministers for adoption by parliament. It included Aleksandar Vulin, a former labor minister, to head the Defense Ministry.
As a government minister, Vulin has called NATO — which bombed Serbia in 1999 over its crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists — an "evil" organization and has taken part in numerous verbal outbursts against Western and officials from neighboring Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia which has fueled ethnic tensions in the war-torn Balkans.
Brnabic's list also includes several other openly pro-Russian and anti-Western ministers, including Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic.
Brnabic is expected to take office this week after a vote in parliament, which is considered a formality.
When Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic earlier this month nominated the U.S.- and U.K.-educated Brnabic to succeed him as prime minister, it was seen as his attempt to calm Western concerns that Serbia was getting too close to Russia despite its proclaimed goal of joining the European Union.
It was always clear that by nominating Brnabic, who gained no real political experience as local administration minister in Vucic's government, the autocratic leader would retain power from his presidential position, which is formally ceremonial.
"If it's true that Vulin will be the defense minister, whose decision is that?" Vuk Jeremic, a former foreign minister who was a candidate in the April presidential election, told N1 television. "If this is her choice of people, that is not an encouraging start."
Serbia, along with Bosnian Serbs, remains the only real Russian ally in the Balkans. The Kremlin has promised to boost Serbia's military and has launched a major propaganda campaign to keep it away from Euro-Atlantic integrations.
Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told the state Sputnik news agency that Serbia's EU bid is destined to fail.
"They have a scandal over there. The English are leaving, while they are convincing you to join the EU. They don't like it, but they want you to like it," he said in Belgrade.