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BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's first female prime minister pledged on Wednesday to reform education and push for the digitalisation of state administration to take the country closer to European Union membership.
Ana Brnabic, the prime minister-designate who in a one-hour speech presented her programme and cabinet to parliament, is expected to get the approval of more than 150 deputies of the ruling coalition in the 250-seat parliament.
Brnabic, the country's first openly gay head of government, was picked by powerful president Aleksandar Vucic, who stepped down as prime minister to take the more ceremonial role after he won the April election in a landslide.
"EU membership remains our main direction," Brnabic said, adding that her government would work on strengthening relations with Moscow, continuing a delicate balancing act between the West and Russia.
Brnabic, who had been minister in charge of state administration in Vucic's cabinet, named Nenad Popovic, a well known businessman with strong links to Russia, as one of her deputies. Dusan Vujovic will remain finance minister.
She said education reform and digitalisation, which would streamline the state's administrative services and reduce waiting times, will be priorities.
"We need to look into the future," said Brnabic.
She added that her government would focus on achieving average economic growth of 3.5 percent a year and would tackle environmental issues, including power production from renewables and waste control -- both key elements in the Balkan state's plans to join the EU.
"I count on the support of the president Vucic," Brnabic, who is not affiliated with any party, said.
Analysts see Brnabic's election as a move to please the West which for years has insisted on the improvement of gay rights in conservative societies across the Balkans, but say real power will remain in the hands of Vucic.
"By nominating a competent, but politically weak PM, Vucic expectedly seeks to solidify his influence over Serbian politics," Teneo Intelligence said in an analyst note on Wednesday.
"As president, head of the ruling SNS (Serbian Progressive Party), and de facto leader of the government, Vucic would extend his influence across the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches, resulting in an unprecedented concentration of power since Slobodan Milosevic’s rule in the 1990s."
Vucic, who as information minister in the late 1990s presided over legislation designed to muzzle dissent against Milosevic, has been accused of stifling media freedoms since becoming prime minister almost two years ago.
Goran Miletic, programme director for the western Balkans at Civil Rights Defenders, an independent human rights organisation founded in Stockholm, said that by electing Brnabic Serbia wanted to present itself "in a better light" to the EU.
"But it all needs to be put in the context that human rights are not being respected here (in Serbia), and by that I mean the rule of law and freedom of media," he said. "I am not optimistic that Brnabic's election will change that."
Strengthening the legal system to ensure the judiciary is free from political influence is a key step for Serbia to progress towards EU membership.
Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Ken Ferris