A conversation with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic
We can learn a lot from small countries where big things are happening. Ireland attracts some of the biggest companies in the world with more than a low corporate tax rate. that of New Zealand KÉA (Kiwi Expat Association) mobilizes their diaspora better than anyone. Estonia has the highest number of technological unicorns per capita in the world, six for a population of 1.3 million.
Outclassing everyone else, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan – 760,000 inhabitants – has vaccinated 93% of its adult population against Covid-19 in two weeks. Having visited one of my holding companies three times, www.etranger.io, I know the challenge that this represented, as well as the spirit and the commitment that made it possible.
Recently, I became interested in the case of Serbia. During the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the country experienced regional war, human rights problems, international sanctions, economic mismanagement and extensive damage to infrastructure. Slowly emerging from these challenges, the country’s GDP in 2015 was 27.5% below its level in 1989.
Since 2017, the Serbian government, headed by President Aleksandar Vučić, has focused on economic growth, attracting foreign investment and strengthening relations abroad, aspiring to finally join the EU.
While critics and political opponents remain skeptical, which they always are, we should judge governments by their actions and results. So far, the progress in four years has been impressive. the World Bank Reports the country “continues to implement programs that correct structural weaknesses, increase public sector efficiency and remove bottlenecks to private sector growth”.
I was most intrigued by the role of Ana Brnabić, the prime minister selected by Vučić, who also happens to be the first woman and LGBTQ person to fill this role. In a broad conversation in April 2021, Brnabić and I explored his vision for Serbia’s creative and digital future, the challenges of public service, and his unusual career trajectory. (See our full video interview.)
From the private sector to the public service
Brnabić never expected to serve in the government. She accepted her first government post as Minister of Public Administration in August 2016, under the first Vučić government. His career at that time had been entirely in the private sector, which gave him a strong appreciation for the realities of business leaders and investors. Describing herself as a technocrat, she prides herself on pragmatic efficiency.
But Brnabić’s contributions transcend effective implementation. She explains her sense of the mission to “do everything I dreamed of as a citizen”. Reform public administration, deploy e-government, make government services accessible to citizens 24/7.
Since becoming prime minister in 2017, she has argued that the country needs to “catch up on Serbia’s lost time”, referring to previous years of conflict and international sanctions. She has become a tireless advocate for two priorities: digitization and education. When she announced digitization as her top priority in her inaugural address, “95% of Serbia laughed. They were skeptical. This did not correspond to the common vision of Serbia, even for our citizens. ”
With Vučić’s strong support, Brnabić and his colleagues got to work. Four years later, “everyone is talking about digitization”. Global companies started investing in the technology sector in Serbia in a highly unlikely way a few years ago. Most Serbs now believe their future is digital.
Digitization & Resilience
While the country has a long way to go – a challenge Vučić and Brnabić accept – momentum is on their side. A global study of “digital progress” by researchers at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, led by Bhaskar Chakravorti, assessed 90 economies across 160 indicators. As reported in the Harvard Business Review, Serbia has classified itself as a ‘disrupted’ economy, characterized as having ‘a limited existing digital infrastructure, but which is digitizing rapidly’. Serbia is moving fast.
When Covid-19 hit, digital transformation paid off. Thanks to e-government services, Serbia was able to maintain most of the services in a way that would have been impossible two years before.
Remarkably, through the pandemic, the IT sector has grown as a percentage of the Serbian economy. Today it represents almost the same level as agriculture, “which is almost unbelievable … and makes us more resilient”.
No brain drain – Circular flow
Throughout our conversation, Brnabić stressed his commitment to supporting the development of the Serbian people. At home, it manifests as education designed for the future. Referring to Serbia’s next generation, Brnabić says: “We don’t really know what jobs they will be doing…. So the only thing we know is we have to teach them How? ‘Or’ What think.”
It is a question of developing the talents of the country, but also of accessing the world. Brnabić embraces the “circular flow of talent”. As many countries struggle with the “brain drain” – when educated and successful citizens leave their home countries – Brnabić sees this as an opportunity. The brain drain, “can work to the advantage of a country”.
Leaving home for new opportunities enables new knowledge, new relationships and access to markets. “People leaving Serbia are not much of a problem. People don’t come back is a problem. What we need to do as a country is to turn it into circular migration. People are coming back to hire, invest and live, while connecting the country to the world.
To help, the government created an organization called “Return point“, a concierge service for Serbs interested in returning. Brnabić’s government also relies on the country’s diaspora organization in Silicon Valley, Serbian entrepreneurs. “They help us so much. Not just by investing in Serbia, but also by teaching ourselves, my team, myself included, what we need to do to make our vision a reality.
Fueling our renewable energy future
Economically, Serbia faces a crucial resource opportunity – and a threat. According to some estimates, the country has perhaps 10% of the world’s reserves of lithium, essential for electric vehicles and energy storage in general. A huge opportunity for Serbia, but with caution. Countries with significant natural resources risk resource curse: become dependent on easy money by digging and drilling.
Because Serbia has built a digital society with a more diverse and value-added economic base, these resources can become an accelerator rather than a curse. That is to say if Serbia remains committed to developing the broad capabilities, education and innovation needed to thrive in the 21st Century.
Ability to change
So far, so good. As the Serbs rally in the future, I asked Brnabić what she wanted for her young son. She aspires for all Serbs to believe in their country’s ability not only to change, but to prosper in the long term.
“When people feel empowered … then they can do whatever they want. It is their country to change. It is a spirit that countries of all sizes need to prosper.