The Balkan nations which emerged from the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia want to close ranks to make their small economies more attractive for trade and foreign investment.
Politicians and business leaders from a region still suffering from the effects of a series of wars in the 1990s, agree that cooperation and a joint approach to foreign markets and potential investors would boost business.
“In today’s world of globalisation, success can be achieved only jointly and not individually,” Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Domagoj Ivan Milosevic told a recent business forum in the southern Adriatic town of Dubrovnik. “In economic terms, size does matter.”
Marko Skreb, chief economist of Privredna Banka Zagreb, said the modern economy was looking for big markets and foreign investors chased size.“The countries in the region used to be one market, they share similar languages and customs, so their historic similarities along with their small size make a joint approach necessary.”
The countries of the former Yugoslavia all have small populations, with Serbia the largest at 7.5 million but together they count as a market of some 22 million people, offering greater potential.
Participants of the Dubrovnik meeting, organised jointly by Croatia and the US, discussed the prospects for trade and investment in agriculture, construction, IT, pharmaceuticals, tourism and transport in southeastern Europe.
The forum came a few days after Serbia and Croatia, along with Slovenia, already an EU member, announced they would join forces on foreign markets.
Serbian President Boris Tadic said the economies of the three states, once partnered in the former Yugoslavia, were “complementary in many domains”.
“Like we have turned a new page on the political plan, the time is coming that a new page be opened also on the economic plan,” Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said.
“Business was the first thing, earlier than politicians, that came across the borders,” said Emil Tedeschi, CEO and owner of Atlantic Grupa, the Croatian firm that is one of the leading consumer goods producers in the region.
Atlantic Grupa, which produces and distributes consumer goods, food and personal care products, operates in some 30 markets in the EU, the Balkans and Russia.
Its popular Cedevita lemonade, Smoki peanut snacks and Bananica candy are children’s staples throughout the southwestern Balkans.
Business leaders, while playing up the potential, were also quick to point out the problems – administrative interference and a daunting amount of red tape.
“Investors seek stability and predictability in the long term,” said Dejan Cvetkovic, from Microsoft Serbia. “The best way to ensure that is to have economic policies completely independent from politics.
“The major difficulty is the red tape, even today.”
Cvetkovic pointed out the complex administrative and bureaucratic procedures.
Businessmen also emphasised the need to boost the fight against corruption and strictly enforce laws to protect investors. “It is not easy to remove those obstacles,” Skreb said, noting that membership of the EU would help.
The entry “criteria that the EU demands (from candidates) are in synch with business sector needs”, he said.
Among the countries in the region, Croatia is the most advanced on the path towards EU membership, hoping to become the bloc’s 28th number in 2012.