In July and August, Serbia went to the polls. Thousands of voters cast their ballots, choosing candidates for the positions of Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and 19 ministerial posts.
When all the votes were counted, the two top jobs went to women: the post of Prime Minister to senior Democratic Party official Ruzica Djindjic, wife of the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, and that of Deputy Prime Minister to the current incumbent, Ivana Dulic Markovic.
But this was no ordinary election. The ballot, organized by the OSCE, the European Movement in Serbia and the daily Blic, was for the election of a "virtual" women's government, designed to highlight the fact that although there are many capable and highly qualified women in Serbia, not enough of them are in senior political positions.
Promoting equal participation
"The Serbian political arena is largely dominated and defined by men, who usually have the more visible political roles," said Zorica Mrsevic, an OSCE Gender Adviser, "but there are many women working hard in the background." Some of them already manage and lead various institutions. Tanja Miscevic, for example, heads the government office dealing with EU integration.
For those women who aim for the top levels of government, extra efforts are often required to combat traditional stereotypes and discrimination. "I have always had to be at least twice as good as my male colleagues," said Sladjana Prica, the Serbian Ambassador to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
Ambassador Hans Ola Urstad is the Head of the OSCE Mission: "Equal participation by women in decision-making is part of their fundamental right to contribute to political, social and economic life, and is the core of gender equality."
But a significant increase of women in decision-making bodies will not happen overnight. It can only take place when citizens and governments recognize and support the need for greater participation by women. This process is beginning to take place in Serbia, thanks in part to the virtual women's government.
By informing citizens of the many women capable of taking on greater responsibility in government, the media campaign called on citizens to elect women ministers based on their qualifications and experience.
"This exercise aimed not to create an alternative to the current Government," said virtual Prime Minister Ruzica Djindjic, "but rather to once again strongly express the need to acknowledge the abilities of women in Serbia. We are ultimately striving for full equality."
Bringing in new ideas
In September, virtual ministers will present their programmes to the public to introduce new arguments into political discussions.
According to Jelica Minic of the European Movement in Serbia, the campaign has achieved several aims so far. It has shown that many women are interested and actively involved in politics. And with over 30,000 votes, it points to the possibility of new parliamentary elections.
The campaign also highlighted the importance of education in Serbia. "Educated women support youth education," said Minic. "Educated citizens, in turn, have high aspirations and the knowledge to reach them. Through advocating for their rights, they can influence the country's democratic development."
The project's organizers expect that the virtual government will act as a shadow "government of experts", providing alternative opinions to those of the national Government. The European Movement is interested in financing its activities. In addition, Serbian towns such as Novi Sad, Novi Pazar and Nis - supported by local newspapers and non-governmental organizations - are interested in similar local initiatives.
As for making it into the actual Government, Ambassador Urstad believes political parties hold the key because they choose the list of candidates. "I would advise women in Serbia to try to get on the inside of the political party nomination process," he added.
Aiming for real results
In Serbia, the lack of women among ministers and in politics in general might help to explain why it has been difficult to significantly change the country's image abroad.
"The project was an opportunity for citizens to get to know many outstanding women who can change Serbia for the better with their expertise, power and determination," said Deputy Prime Minister Ivana Dulic Markovic.
To support them, the OSCE Mission will continue to promote gender equality, particularly in politics. Ambassador Urstad hopes that by establishing the virtual women's government, it will now be difficult in Serbia to argue that there are not enough competent women, or even worse, that women have no interest in politics.
"We want real results, not only virtual ones," he said.