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Nikolaos Sliousaregko, President of the HBA Management Board

Committed To Development And Cooperation

Thanks to the strong support of its member companies, the Hellenic Business Association has spent two decades promoting not only economic ties between Serbia and Greece, but also social and cultural links

The crisis in Ukraine has led to economic uncertainty at a global level, and economic growth will certainly slow sharply during 2023. It is expected that the war will continue to impact not only supply chains, but also the global economy as a whole, with rising inflation and high interest rates fuelling possible recession. European is particularly exposed to challenges as a result of its dependence on imports of gas and oil, which is why great work is being done to identify alternative sources of energy. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/ chloedemrovsky/2023/01/18/supply-chainand- ukraine-shaped-a-hectic-year–whatwill- 2023-bring/?sh=55d635796358).

Despite the numerous challenges confronting us, Greek companies in Serbia have recorded stable operation during the period of crisis. Moreover, data exchange on goods trade between Serbia and Greece for 2022 indicate a slight increase compared to 2021, when exports totalled a value of approximately 300 million USD, while imports were worth 534 million USD ~ says Nikolaos Sliousaregko, President of the HBA Management Board.

“During the previous year, our association increased with several new members – new Greek companies on the territory of the country, from the SME sector. Simultaneously, the presence in Greece of very successful Serbian companies was noted during the previous period, through franchises and distribution in the sectors of cosmetic products, sportswear and sports equipment”.

How are HBA member companies weathering the crisis?

Rising energy prices and inflation are a challenge to big part of the corporations. When it comes to our members, Greek companies in Serbia are taking on challenges that are also confronting all other domestic and foreign businesspeople, and those are aggravated transportation – both from territories hit by war or sanctions and from EU countries and China, due to high transportation costs and more difficult access to available capacities for transporting goods. Also, the search for labour has started to be a considerable problem for further development.

Searching for new suppliers, turning to solar power energy and importing workers seem like the first solutions that started to be adopted by Greek businesses.

Would you say that the current business environment is conducive to growth? How could it be improved from the perspective of your members?

Over the past few years, the Government of Serbia has remained consistent in implementing the programme of structural reforms and has improved the business and investment climate significantly. It is very important that promotion and investment in improving the infrastructure continues the following decade, along with the planned construction and modernisation of roads, railways, bridges and ports. The Government is also directing efforts towards investing in healthcare, and the fact that Serbia embarked on the green transition path during the previous year is also important. Alongside this, we should also mention the IT sector as the fastest growing sector in Serbia. At the same time, there are existing challenges that are being faced not only by Greek companies, but also by all other companies operating on the Serbian market, the greatest of which are long-term harmonisation with EU regulations and complicated procedures for obtaining various permits for doing business as well as import-export procedures. Serbia is nevertheless one of the few countries in Southeast Europe where foreign companies have found the right place for development and stability.

The HBA is this year celebrating its 20th anniversary. Looking back, what would you single out as the HBA’s top achievements during this period?

The Hellenic Business Association was founded at the initiative of several Greek business leaders who decided, back in 2003, to establish a platform for connecting and cooperating between members of the Greek business community in Serbia. This idea was brought into practise and functions very successfully today. Thanks to the strong support of its members, the HBA promotes not only economic ties between Serbia and Greece, but also social and cultural links.

Over the course of the past two decades, we’ve organised numerous activities and initiatives aimed at promoting mutual networking among our members, but also connecting them with domestic and foreign companies operating on the market, while we’ve also had an opportunity to meet with the highest officials of Serbia and Greece. By implementing initiatives that promote our shared historical and cultural heritage, we have – at the same time – fostered the concept of friendship between our people, and demonstrated, through projects of a humanitarian nature, the social responsibility of Greek investors and their respect towards the host country.

When it comes to investments in Serbia, how much has the investment climate evolved, but also the interest of Greek companies?

The implementation of macroeconomic reforms of multiple years, financial stability, investment incentives and free trade arrangements with key markets, primarily that of the European Union, are the most significant factors that have contributed to improving conditions for foreign investment. Greek investors are evidently stable partners to the Serbian economy, looking at the long-term successful operations of numerous companies, such as Autostop Interiors, the Hellenic Sugar Industry, Alumil YU Industry, Kleemann, EKO, Isomat, Titan, Super Vero, the Lapsa Group, the Daskalantonakis Group and many others.

Despite certain operational challenges linked to complicated procedures, Serbia is one of the few countries in Southeast Europe where foreign companies have found the right place for development and stability

There is still interest in investing in Serbia, with a focus on small and medium-sized enterprises, but also through the new investments of companies that are already present on the Serbian market. During the previous year, Eurobank conducted the merger process with Direktna Bank, which represents one of the most important business activities of Greek companies during the previous period, given that it confirms the stability of the Greek banking presence in the country. Super Vero also expanded its operations beyond Belgrade late last year, with the opening of a new hypermarket in Novi Sad. Apart from this, the successful enduring cooperation and growing business ties between the Athens and Belgrade stock exchanges resulted in the Athens Stock Exchange purchasing of 10.24% of total shares of the Belgrade Stock Exchange, which will join the trading platform that the Athens and Cyprus stock exchanges already operate on, thereby improving its liquidity and range of services.

Among the many sectors in which Greek investors are present, the banking presence used to have prominent place. Which sectors of the Serbian economy today have the most Greek companies in terms of turnover?

Four Greek banks marked not only the Greek investment presence over a specific period, but also represented a significant part of the entire country’s banking sector. Given that Greek companies, apart from those in the banking sector, have been active in almost all areas of business in Serbia for two decades, the sectors that stand out as being the most successful in the following years are the hotel industry and construction, the cement and sugar industry, the sector of petroleum trade, the manufacturing of construction materials and aluminium profiles, food and beverage retail, the service sector etc. Total Greek FDI in Serbia is estimated at around 1.5 billion euros, while direct and indirect investments over the past 20 years exceed a value of 2.5 billion euros.

Today, thanks to EU support, the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans has a much greater presence in Serbia’s policy agenda. To what extent are Greek companies involved in the circular economy, wastewater treatment, waste management and construction in Serbia?

Greek companies, the largest of which are the Aktor and Terna groups, are very active in the Serbian construction sector and have been responsible for implementing numerous projects of interest to the state and the public. When it comes to waste management, the Viohalco Group has been dedicated to the development and adoption of production processes that protect the environment in Serbia for many years, but also to providing high-quality services within the scope of a sustainable economic environment harmonised with nature.

As far as wastewater management is concerned, a Greek company is already close to signing contracts for the first mobile wastewater treatment facilities, while very soon, provided all goes well, we will probably see a production unit in this sector in the country. At the same time, the Greek energy sector is itself going through a major transformation, given that the decision to close down coalfired thermal power plants was made under a very short deadline, which is why Greece turned to capacities that use renewable energy sources. The ascent of RES-based energy projects, which are mostly based on solar and wind energy, also testifies to the expertise of Greek companies in this sector, which could play a significant role in implementing the Green Agenda for Serbia . They could additionally contribute to it being applied in the fields of the circular economy, wastewater treatment, waste management and the protection of nature and biodiversity. Greek companies that are already present in the construction sector could also participate in implementing the plan.

Given your personal knowledge of the hospitality industry in both Serbia and Greece, could you tell us what we can expect from the upcoming 2023 tourist season?

The tourism industry in Serbia is developing constantly. According to results from 2022, the number of overnight stays doubled compared to 2021 and amounted to 12.3 million overnight stays, exceeding the forecasts from 2019 by more than 20 per cent. There have been continuous investments in new hotel units over recent years, by both domestic and foreign investors. In Belgrade, for example, we have gone from having 65 hotels in 2014 to reaching a total of 122 in just six years, and that includes the arrival of world-renowned brands. Of course, the trends and results of each year, as well as the operational policies of certain organisations and ministries for the opening of new markets, visas etc., have a positive effect, provided we exclude the two tragic years of the pandemic. Of course, we are monitoring the development of two topics with concern: the inflationary pressures appearing in many countries, but also the course of the crisis in Ukraine, which influences a large part of the tourist market. The results from January and February are nonetheless very positive for tourism industry flows during 2023, while many markets that closed due to the pandemic are expected to reopen.

COMMITMENT

Greek investors are stable partners to the Serbian economy, testifying to which are the successful long-term operations of numerous companies

PROGRESS

Despite numerous challenges, Greek companies in Serbia have recorded stable operations during the period of crisis, while the trade exchange between Serbia and Greece increased in 2022

CONTRIBUTION

Total Greek FDI in Serbia is estimated at around 1.5 billion euros, while direct and indirect investments over the past 20 years exceed a value of 2.5 billion euros