Serbia, For investors, the most important thing is stability, predictable and sustainable business environment

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The Council of Foreign Investors is fully aware of the challenges that the Government of the Republic of Serbia is facing due to the current geopolitical and health situation, because the pandemic, although relegated to the background, is still not over. Today, when we look back at the period of the past 20 years, we see that it has never been easy and simple to build a business and investment climate in these areas, and that is why the role of the Council was and will continue to be extremely important, because our priorities have remained unchanged over time: creating a predictable, competitive and sustainable business and investment environment.

This is how Ana Govedarica, a member of the Board of Directors of the Council of Foreign Investors (FIC) and director of the Roche company for Serbia and Montenegro, assesses the current conditions for doing business in our country and the priorities in the coming period. In an interview with Biznis.rs, she points out that the members of the Council see a key prerequisite for achieving their goals in the intensification of negotiations with the EU on the membership of the Republic of Serbia, as well as the harmonization of domestic regulations with European standards, even though they are aware that the recession in the Eurozone and the expected drop in GDP will have negative impacts on the Serbian economy, which is deeply integrated into the EU economy.

Which sectors are most interesting to potential investors? Who will invest in Serbia in 2023?

“We in the Council often point out that our members are companies that are already in Serbia and that have not only recognized Serbia as a good place to invest, but are also vitally interested in the growth of the Serbian economy and the progress of Serbian society as a whole.” Precisely because of this, many companies reinvested in their new projects even in the most difficult period of the corona. According to the data so far, as well as the willingness of already existing investors to reinvest, interesting sectors in the coming period, in addition to the mechanical and metal industry, will be the food and processing industry, the automotive industry – especially components, ICT, but also the so-called life sciencea sector consisting of companies operating in the fields of pharmacy, biotechnology, medical devices, biomedical technologies, nutrition, cosmetology, food processing and others, which devote their efforts to creating products to improve the lives of people and other living organisms.”

What do foreign investors consider more important in the current economic situation – the fight against inflation or state support for economic growth?

“For all existing and future, domestic and foreign investors, above all, stability is important, that is, a predictable, competitive and sustainable business and investment environment.” In that process, the role of the state is crucial. More than once, the topic of incentives has caused polemics in the public. However, for our members, direct incentives are not and will not be the key reason for investing in Serbia, but permanent harmonization of regulations with EU standards, consistent application and supervision of the implementation of laws, implementation of structural reforms and continuous improvement of the business and investment climate.

If we take into account the views of the members of the Council of Foreign Investors, they expect state support for economic growth, first of all, in the creation of such a business environment that will enable the prospect of their development without direct state incentives. Furthermore, as was emphasized during the presentation of this year’s White Paper within the Working Group of the Government of the Republic of Serbia and the Council, chaired by Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, in these challenging times, the return of inflation to the target corridor, the completion of restructuring and the corporatization of public infrastructure companies, especially in in the field of energy, implementing structural reforms, but also optimizing the fiscal burden and public expenditures in order to prevent the growth of the country’s public debt.

How satisfied are you with the implementation of the recommendations from the White Book?

“The White Paper is a key project of the Foreign Investors Council, which is unique in that it is written by FIC members themselves based on their vast professional knowledge, practical experience and commitment. For twenty years, it has been the Council’s main platform for dialogue on improving regulations, i.e. the business and investment climate. This year, the White Book covers 55 areas and contains 372 recommendations for improving the business and investment climate, which were written by 49 authors. Furthermore, this year’s edition of the White Book was created, it should be pointed out, under specific conditions. The war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, the still present Covid-19 pandemic, but also the election year in Serbia, influenced the implementation of the recommendations from last year’s edition of the White Book. Progress was recorded in 25 percent of cases. 

The contribution of our members is very significant in the initiatives that have already been implemented or are expected to be implemented in the near future. It all started with the introduction of the electronic administration service through which citizens applied for vaccinations. This was extended to the issuance of a digital green vaccination certificate, which was made according to EU standards, and on the basis of which Serbian citizens could travel abroad without having to have a negative PCR test. In the background of these changes, this year the development of infrastructure, technical and personnel capacities that can offer new services in a short period of time and put them into the function of solving current problems of citizens continued.

All that contributed to a change in consciousness and behavior?

“Citizens’ awareness has started to change, and thus their behavior as well.” We are witnessing a sharp increase in the number of transactions carried out electronically, as well as a wider application of contactless payments using “digital wallets” that are available in a large number of financial institutions. This almost doubled the number of transactions. At the same time, the number of dinar payment transactions realized by payment card via the Internet recorded an increase of over fifty percent.

Citizens are enabled to receive a qualified electronic certificate in the cloud free of charge, which they can use in a simple and fast way via a mobile phone, without the need to install special software or have a smart card. The solution involves personal identification through an ID card, which will be suitable for the widest range of citizens. In addition to the above, the eUverenje service was launched, which enables the submission of an electronic request in order to obtain an electronic certificate of settled liabilities based on property taxes and taxes from the domain of local self-governments. Full implementation of digital bills is also expected. The Council of Foreign Investors actively participates in the work of the Coordinating Body for Digitalization of Healthcare in Serbia.

One of the priority areas of the Council of Foreign Investors is the pharmaceutical industry. What progress has been made in that area and what are your expectations for the coming year?

“The pandemic and all the events surrounding it reminded us how sensitive and important the issue of the nation’s health is, among other things, for the economic growth and progress of a society. This issue is most directly related to investments in the health system. At the same time, the supply of medicines and ensuring the availability of the most up-to-date therapies are one of the basic prerequisites for the positive results of the health system in each country. Summarizing the results, I can say that the Council of Foreign Investors has achieved significant results precisely in my home industry.

Namely, the last two editions of the White Book paid special attention to the need for systemic financing of innovative medicines, i.e. their dedicated subsidization from the budget of the Republic Fund for Health Insurance by the budget of the Republic of Serbia. In the previous period, all key actors showed a high degree of understanding of this important issue – RFZO, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance, for financing 26 new drugs/indications from several therapeutic areas (diabetes, oncology, cardiology, hematology, multiple sclerosis, hepatitis C, psoriasis and hemophilia). The entire process of negotiating and contracting the terms of financing new medicines was carried out according to the criteria established by the Central Commission for Medicines, with intensive activities of representatives of the RFZO and pharmaceutical companies. and everything ended with the conclusion of several models of special contracts, which adopted the best European practice. This was a big step forward in terms of the availability of the most modern therapies for our patients, and at the same time a new goal was set for the Pharmaceutical Board, as well as for the Council of Foreign Investors as a whole, which is to ensure the repetition of the described process every year, which then brings us to the long-desired position – that we can rightly say that patients in Serbia are treated in terms of drug therapy in the same way as patients in more economically developed countries than ours.

In addition, the Council advocates for the simplification and acceleration of the procedures for the introduction and registration of new, as well as the renewal of, existing licenses for medicines. Of course, we should not forget the importance of settling the remaining debts of the state health institutions to wholesalers and suppliers for delivered drugs and medical devices, in order to ensure continued supply and stability of this important market in the Republic of Serbia.”

You recently held the FIC Assembly. What are the Council’s conclusions and guidelines for next year?

“The Council held a regular annual session of the Assembly, where the annual and financial report for 2022 was adopted. It is an important moment for us because our members insist on transparency and independence. The uniqueness of the Council is reflected in this, because for twenty years we have ensured complete independence when it comes to financing, but also transparency in our work, i.e. representing the interests of our members and the business community as a whole, which is also recognized by our important partners, the European delegation in Serbia and the European Commission in Brussels.

In addition, the Council also adopted changes to the statute that should add quality and dynamism to the work of our business association. The chairmen of the working committees that form the backbone of the Council’s work presented their priorities for the coming year by area. I would like to mention that in 2022, the Council formed a working committee for tourism and hospitality, which, despite the problems caused by the pandemic, recognized this activity as important for the future development of the Serbian economy. In addition, in the coming period, the Council will additionally be dedicated to the issues of involving young people in economic flows, monitoring European and world trends and, accordingly, contribute to the development of activities based on modern technologies that systematically improve the quality of life, respecting the European Green Deal and the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans, aware of the problems brought about by climate change, but also the importance of improving the environment. As an organization, the Council of Foreign Investors is proud of the growth achieved so far and we are grateful to all our members for their engagement in continuing to consistently find opportunities and solutions to improve the economy and society of Serbia as a whole.”

Digitization and the green agenda

For a long time, the focus has been on the green agenda, climate change and changes in the way of working, as well as the impact of new technologies on the operations of companies and the functioning of society as a whole. What is Serbia’s capacity to deal with these issues and where is our place in Europe and the world?

“Accelerated digitization helps recovery after the pandemic.” That is why it was one of the main priorities of the Council in 2022, but also of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, which is why we are especially glad. Another extremely important element is the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans, part of the new development strategy from the European Green Deal. It includes climate action, along with decarbonisation, energy and mobility; circular economy; biodiversity; combating air, water and soil pollution, and finally sustainable food systems and rural areas. Green is the key word for growth, jobs and health. Investing in the environment and climate change is an investment in the future because, without it, the loss would be immeasurable.

The member companies of the Council comply with all the mentioned rules and have already adapted their operations to those essential and ambitious goals. This very fact significantly contributes to the alignment of the Serbian economy with increasingly demanding trends with the aim of achieving its overall competitiveness on the European and world markets. Our experience and our expertise are at the disposal of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, and we are of the opinion that the Council of Foreign Investors, as a reliable partner in this regard, can undoubtedly make a significant contribution”, Biznis writes.

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