Atlanta hosted its share of VIP guests during Super Bowl week. One who returned home well before opening kickoff was the prime minister of Serbia.
Ana Brnabic‘s primary athletic allegiance is to Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, recent winner of the Australian Open, and she has little interest in American football.
Ms. Brnabic, her nation’s first woman prime minister, came here to meet with top executives of NCR Corp. at the gleaming, ultra-modern worldwide headquarters the fintech giant opened in midtown Atlanta one year ago.
She was awestruck. “It’s like a small city in there,” she told Global Atlanta in an interview at the fabled Georgian Terrace Hotel just a few blocks away.
NCR. the one-time cash register maker that now produces ATMs, credit card check-out scanners and airport check-in ticketing kiosks, plans to break ground on a new regional center in Belgrade in April.
NCR began operations in the Balkan nation in 2011 with a start-up work force of 300 that has increased ten-fold to 3,100 and is expected to eventually grow to 4,200 with the planned expansion.
Ms. Brnabic called it a $90 million investment in her country’s future, given how NCR develops both software and provides customer support services in multiple languages.
Worldwide, the company employs 34,000 people in 180 countries.
The prime minister said NCR’s new campus will become “a power hub of solutions” as Serbia — the world’s largest exporter of raspberries — develops “an economy driven by knowledge and innovation.”
To meet that goal, Ms. Brnabic said Serbia is modernizing its education system, spending more than $100 million on infrastructure and science study advances. Computer programming is being taught in primary schools, as early as kindergarten.
“NCR is a big partner in that,” she said. “We also learn a lot from NCR.”
And the increased investment from one of the world’s leading companies, Ms. Brnabic said, is “a good recommendation for other potential companies to invest in Serbia.”
Stefan Lazarevic, CEO of NCR Serbia, has said the company wants the new Belgrade facility to “be a platform for cooperation with the start-ups and academic community and all others that are dealing with innovations.”
The 43-year-old prime minister said her country has just experienced its third straight budget surplus after going nearly bankrupt less than a decade ago.
It took massive government layoffs, painful pension cuts and a reduction of bureaucratic red tape to get the economic recovery started. Unemployment is down from nearly 25 percent in 2012 to 11.4 percent today, and its GDP rose 4.4 per cent last year.
“It’s looking better, but there’s still a long way to go to improve quality of life and paychecks in Serbia,” she said. “We need to become more business friendly” to attract “more investors, and jobs.”
Information technology could help speed the process. Ms. Brnabic said it is the fastest growing sector of the Serbian economy and she considers it key to achieving Serbia’s longer-term goal of EU accession — entry into the European Union.
Serbia hopes to be admitted to the EU in 2025, but European leaders first want to see a normalization of relations with Kosovo, the mostly ethnic Albanian former province that seceded from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a bloody rebellion.
Normalization talks were halted in November after Kosovo, which also wants to join the EU, imposed 100 percent customs tariffs to block imports from Serbia and Bosnia, accusing its two Balkan neighbors of taking aggressive steps to thwart its sovereignty.
Serbia has strongly protested the tariffs, along with the EU and United States. But it has not imposed “countermeasures,” Ms. Brnabic said, and hopes for “some kind of compromise that would lead to long-term cooperation with Kosovo.”
The prime minister said she does not believe Serbia’s traditionally strong ties and trade with Russia, its sole provider of natural gas, will be an impediment to eventual membership in the EU.
“Russia knows of our EU desires, and Brussels knows of our ties to Russia,” she said. “Neither has asked us to take sides.”
Ms. Brnabic said she wants the world to see a Serbia that is “pragmatic, smarter and less emotional” in its politics and foreign policy.
A political independent, she was appointed prime minister 18 months ago by the man who left that post after he was elected president, Aleksandar Vucic.
Her two-day U.S. visit started in Ohio, where NCR was founded 135 years ago. She met in Columbus with the governor and Ohio’s National Guard, which has partnered with Serbia in joint military exercises.
It was then on to Atlanta. Ms. Brnabic and her small party arrived on the coldest day of winter, but found it to be “a beautiful city — a fantastic place to live.”