Firmly established links between businesspeople, but also support provided to them selflessly by chambers of commerce and consulates, ensured that not a single job agreed with Serbian business leaders suffered even during the most difficult stages of the pandemic. This is illustrated clearly by the results of the trade exchange and potential investments
Although cooperation between Serbian and Austrian companies during the COVID-19 pandemic was conducted in a way that was far from regular, the level of business cooperation was preserved thanks to the maximum engagement of companies. As such, the fall in the trade exchange during 2020 was far less in the case of Serbia than it was with Austria’s other partners, as shown by data from the Serbian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SCCI).
“The trade exchange recovered quickly during 2021, and the pre-crisis period value of this exchange is expected to be reached again, if not slightly exceeded,” says Nada Knežević, director of the SCCI Austrian Representative Office.
Cooperation between institutions, particularly chambers of commerce, was much more intensive throughout the entire period of the crisis than it ordinarily is under regular conditions, and all stakeholders engaged maximally in helping the economy, through exchanges of information and experiences, to grab a connection under extraordinary circumstances, explains our interlocutor. “I consider it a special success that every Serbian company that needed to send its workers to Austria during the period of the crisis in order to assemble their products and systems, as stipulated by their business contracts, was actually able to do that, despite numerous challenges.”
To what extent was it possible, under these conditions, to organise in-person visits and direct contacts between businesspeople from the two countries?
The organising of these kinds of meetings wasn’t at all easy because, during certain periods, permission for movements was granted exclusively for pressing, urgent business matters. Receiving the consent of border authorities to enter the territory of the state, consent to move within the territory during permitted times or periods when movement was prohibited, was mainly achieved by the SCCI Representative Office engaging with the services of the Austrian Interior Ministry and other relevant provincial authorities. Every company that addressed the SCCI or the SCCI Representative Office was provided with all the required information, as well as support in carrying out essential visits. Such activities certainly implied additional engagements, but nobody who had an urgent job to do was left without the possibility of doing that job.
Businesspeople should also be praised for being very conscientious when it came to conducting visits and adhering to the stringent health conditions that they had to respect during their movements and work. A particularly extensive job was conditioned by the transiting of businesspeople through Austria towards other Western European countries, because movements were possible only by road during large intervals, but activities were conducted extremely successfully in this sense. It is also important in this regard to mention the close and very intensive cooperation with the consular department of the Serbian Embassy in Vienna, which engaged on these matters wholeheartedly. They worked 18-20 hours a day during individual periods, in order to monitor all the events, but – regardless of the stress and pressure that was a daily reality – the satisfaction felt after successful implementation nonetheless prevailed and also provided motivation for further work.
How did the fact that the number of contacts was reduced reflect on new investments, and which forms of cooperation showed themselves to be the most successful in the digital space?
Despite the described challenges, one cannot say that the coronavirus impacted on new investments. Those investments that had already started, continued being implemented, though admittedly at a slower pace than previously planned.
The Serbian market isn’t a complete unknown to Austrian investors, especially given that a very large number of Austrian companies already do business in Serbia. The crisis, which hit the transport and logistics sectors particularly hard, as well as the standstills present globally in terms of maintaining supply chains, can be freely said to have even led many Austrian companies to consider relocating their production facilities from faraway destinations to regions that are closer to their home country. Regardless of the importance for Serbia of continuing to entice foreign direct investments, including from Austria, I consider it very important to highlight the fact that, in recent years, we’ve seen a particularly pronounced interest in opening subsidiaries in Austria among Serbian companies.
When Serbian companies decide to expand their operations to the market of the European Union, they most commonly choose to establish their companies in Austria. One of the motivating factors for that is certainly the large Serbian diaspora present in that country, but the main logic behind such an investment is based, to the greatest extent, on the fact that a company that starts operating and selling successfully on the Austrian market can use Austria in its further steps as an excellent springboard for advancement and growth on the German market, which is ten times larger, or that of Switzerland, which is recognised among Serbian businesspeople as a very demanding and closed market.
In this respect, the costs of entering the Austrian market come with the logical further growth of the company on a market that, viewed as a whole, is much larger, and in doing so they can utilise new resources within the parent company that were already established during the process of entering the Austrian market.
How interesting a location is Serbia for Austrian companies when it comes to offshoring and nearshoring?
It is not only Austrian companies, but also state institutions of the Republic of Austria, which recognised during this crisis the significance and importance of certain production capacities – especially key ones that have gradually “departed” to faraway destinations following defeat in the struggle for cheaper production conditions – being brought closer to the home country, or even returned to the territory of Austria. Serbia has great prospects for any Austrian company seeking a place to relocate production operations from a distant destination to one closer to Austria. In this regard, Serbia is benefited in particular by all the investments of previous years that it has directed towards the construction of road and rail infrastructure, where remarkable progress has been made.
Although it was previously difficult to imagine Austrian investors investing in southern Serbia, as they were first and foremost interested in the region of Vojvodina, which was best connected by road, the situation now is such that several of the most recent major investments headed in the direction of Niš, primarily due to the strong development of infrastructure, but also the available workforce that still remains at their disposal in this region.
The instant opportunities emerge on the Serbian labour market that are similar to those represented in Austria or Germany, i.e., when we reach the juncture at which it is possible for someone with this kind of education to earn far more than someone with a university degree, then this type of education will be accepted without hesitation
How would you today assess experiences with dual education; what else can be done for this concept to be even more successful?
The exchange of experiences between Serbia and Austria in this aspect is very intensive, while communication between the two countries’ chambers of commerce, which are to a certain extent the carriers of this form of education, is particularly pronounced. Our country’s economy and the speed of its development are decisive factors that will dictate the pace at which this concept of education will develop in Serbia. Considering how many Serbian citizens are employed at German and Austrian companies that are already operating in Serbia, as well as the fact that a large influx of German investments is still expected, it is completely clear that this concept will gradually become more successful.
The mental barrier preventing some schoolchildren from opting for this type of education instead of university studies will reduce over time, because time will show that having a university degree is no guarantee that someone will be able to secure employment.
In which ways are the Serbian and Austrian chambers deepening their cooperation and what are the priorities of your future work?
The economic areas and topics that the two chambers cooperate on are so numerous that it’s difficult to imagine an area where we haven’t at least established communication or exchanges of information. The Austrian Economic Chambers has a strong system that’s developed over decades and which, in and of itself, represents one of the most important pillars of Austrian economic development. Viewed historically, the Serbian Chamber of Commerce & Industry, despite being one of the oldest, has had different periods of rises and falls, but in recent years has undergone many structural changes that have significantly improved its work and, thus, its image. All the positive experiences that we can gain in exchanges with the Austrian Chamber are applied, but that is a process in which we must develop solutions that are suitable to our economy.
Copying the system verbatim, 1:1, is not possible because, despite the great similarities between the two countries, there are also numerous specificities. Mutual cooperation – starting from the highest level, which relates to the two presidents, via the representative offices of the chambers that exist in both countries, all the way to the economic branch sectors that exist within the chambers – can be assessed as exceptional. Both chambers organise numerous events that create opportunities for companies to establish mutual contacts, create opportunities to exhibit collectively at fairs, submit and exchange all required information on opportunities for future cooperation, consider proposals for amendments to laws and additional measures to facilitate business operations. Apart from providing capacity building and reform support to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce & Industry, the Austrian Economic Chamber has provided, and continues to provide, financial support for projects that the two chambers work on together.
Bilateral economic and trade cooperation between Austria and Serbia wasn’t suspended even during the period of the most restrictive measures aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus
If any Austrian company were to seek a place to relocate production operations from a distant destination to one closer to Austria, Serbia has a great chance of enticing such investments
Mutual cooperation between the two chambers – starting from the highest level, via the representative offices, all the way to the economic branch sectors within the chambers – can be assessed as exceptional