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Stylianos Zakof, President Of The Hellenic Business Association Of Serbia

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Quicker harmonisation with EU regulations, judicial reform, and the simplifying of procedures for obtaining various business permits, import and export procedures, would make Serbia one of the region’s most desirable countries for investment

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the world’s economy to the toughest test, and we are all handling the consequences of the difficult health situation in which we find ourselves. The business world is facing higher costs due to reduced operating revenues and falling demand for goods and services, but also hampered supply chains, including both domestic and foreign markets.

We asked Stylianos Zakof, President of the Board of Directors of the Hellenic Business Association of Serbia, how Greek companies are coping with these troubles and how Greek-Serbian economic cooperation is weathering the challenges under these conditions.

How would you assess the operations of your member companies and how much of an impact did the measures of the Government of Serbia have on their business operations during the pandemic?

– When we are talking about Greek companies operating in Serbia, the service sector, and the hospitality and hotel industry in particular, have suffered the worst blow. The measures that were adopted by the government during the course of last year proved to be extremely useful and most of our members utilised this type of assistance. The measures are rightly aimed at preserving jobs and increasing the liquidity of companies, and it is very positive that the state is continuing its economic measures to support the economy. On the other hand, uncertainty is the biggest challenge for many sectors at the global level, which is why it will be essential to modernise and introduce new ways of working, an accelerated digital transformation process, as well as the good harmonising of assets and liabilities. In this sense, it will be very important to have coordinated cooperation between the private and state sectors at all levels.

Your association was very active in the dialogue with the Government of Serbia around the introduction of the first package of measures for the economy. How important is cooperation between business associations and the government when it comes to creating an economic environment in which it is possible to adapt business operations during a pandemic?

– I must express my satisfaction with the cooperation we have had to date with the representatives of Serbian institutions, because they have always shown a readiness to provide us with answers to questions that concern the operations of our members, as well as to support us in organising of various business gatherings. During March last year, bilateral foreign chambers of commerce and organisations, including the Hellenic Business Association, sent a joint open request to the Ministry of Economy to implement additional measures to support small and medium-sized enterprises, which the Serbian government supported.

Business associations represent the voice of the private sector, which is an important stakeholder in economic growth and employment. For both the government and the private sector, it is extremely important for there to be open dialogue and mutual support that will stimulate the business environment during this uncertain time. The economy will have to adapt its operations to new trends, because we are witnessing a time in which current economic recovery policies will shape the new economic and social system.

In the previous period we organised a series of webinars on topics related to ways of doing business during the pandemic, including topics linked to accounting, legal and customs issues, marketing and HR

What questions are you asked most often by members? What are the biggest challenges they’re facing in their work today?

– The Greek business community in Serbia is well developed and we strive to selflessly support each other. Most of our existing members, but also future ones, seek help with information on entrepreneurship in the country and clarifications regarding bureaucracy.

During the previous year and this one, we have received a large number of inquiries related to border crossing procedures as a result of the pandemic, which is why we regularly inform our members about all newly adopted measures and regulations of both the Serbian and Greek governments. The challenges we continue to face are problems that arise on the path to European integration for any country in the region, including Serbia. Long-term harmonisation with EU regulations, judicial reform, and the simplifying of procedures for obtaining various business permits, as well as import and export procedures, are definitely the biggest challenges not only for Greek companies, but also for other foreign companies that would like to expand their activities to the Serbian market. Solving these problems would inevitably make Serbia one of the region’s most desirable countries for investment.

Under conditions of working online from home, how possible was it for the HBA to respond to the needs of members and what were the most important activities that you organised during the last year?

– Like all other stakeholders in the Serbian business community, the Hellenic Business Association has also adapted to the new business conditions dictated by the pandemic.

Video conferencing and virtual events have never been more important to business than they are now. In that sense, we organised a series of webinars on topics related to ways of doing business during the pandemic, including topics linked to accounting, legal and customs issues, as well as topics in the fields of marketing and HR. Among the significant activities carried out prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, I would single out the meetings with Greek Finance Minister Christos Staikouras and Secretary General for International Economic Affairs at the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs Gregoris Dimitriadis, at which we discussed current issues related to bilateral economic and trade relations between Greece and Serbia, communications between Greek businessmen abroad and the Greek Ministry of Finance, as well as problems faced by Greek companies operating in Serbia. Among the traditional events, I would single out the Cutting of Vasilopita and the Greek Weekend on Kopaonik.

According to your assessment, how did this situation impact on the trade exchange between Serbia and Greece, and in which sectors do you see the possibility to improve that exchange?

– Total Greek direct investment in Serbia is estimated at around 1.5 billion euros, while direct and indirect investments made over the past 15 years have exceeded 2.5 billion euros. Despite the fact that Greek companies are interested in investing in Serbia, and the good relations nurtured by the two countries, Serbia and Greece have yet to explore the possibilities of economic exchange in many sectors. In that sense, the existing pandemic has not had a significant impact on foreign trade, which has modest results, despite its potential. The potential that would contribute to growth is reflected in sectors like agriculture, food and beverages, construction materials, energy and information and communication technologies etc.

Last October you once again organised the now traditional break intended for members of the Greek community in Serbia and their families to get acquainted and interconnect. How valuable are such events to “recharge the batteries“ and strengthen links between members?

– The Greek family weekend on Kopaonik has become a traditional event that was organised for the fifth consecutive year in a row in cooperation with our member company, Hotel Junior on Kopaonik. Informal meetings between representatives of Greek companies are particularly important for our association. These kinds of events strengthen mutual relations between representatives of the Greek business community, and thus also contribute to the deepening of business cooperation.

Specifically, this original three-day break to meet and develop interconnectivity between members and their families was accompanied by relaxation, entertainment, several family sports, and live Greek music. This event receives positive comments from our members every year and attracts an ever-increasing number of participants.

Serbia and Greece have yet to explore the possibilities of economic exchange in many sectors, such as agriculture, food and beverages, construction materials, energy, information and communication technologies etc.

During 2020 you also published a new edition of the “Member to Member” publication. What is the aim of this publication and how does it connect members of different business associations?

– The publication “Member to Member”, which the Hellenic Business Association has already been publishing for years, is intended to promote the products and services of member companies to the wider business community and contains special offers and discounts for companies in various sectors. It is conceived in such a way as to provide opportunities for interaction and support between companies, as well as to represent an effective means of promoting those companies. Last year’s edition promoted support for doing business in Serbia and the strengthening of relations between countries endangered by the COVID- 19 pandemic. The HBA last year joined forces with two other European chambers and prepared a joint publication.

How have HBA member companies contributed to protecting the health and safety of their employees and Serbia’s citizenry?

– Corporate social responsibility has become an integral part of today’s business operations, given that companies are expected to take care of employees, clients, and the community, but also the environment. This fact reflects the importance of the business sector in today’s society, but also the responsibility that arises from that importance. In the spirit of a tradition that dates back centuries, Greece and Serbia have always shown mutual solidarity.

We are very glad that Greek companies have once again displayed their socially responsible awareness and solidarity with Serbia in the struggle against COVID-19, not only as they would towards any host country, but also as a traditional friend and business partner. In accordance with this trend, HBA members donated basic funds for the work of the Serbian healthcare system, while at the same time helping local communities with financial and material contributions.

What are your plans for the remainder of 2021?

– Considering the uncertainty of implementing public gatherings, the Hellenic Business Association will continue to be a socially responsible member of the community and in that sense, we are planning to organise online activities. New legal and accounting factors, as well as training in various sectors, can be presented to the employees of member companies in a very correct way, in the webinar format. We are also planning to continue our dialogue with state institutions, with the aim of informing our members about current topics regarding the Serbian economy.

Additionally, during the course of this year, we plan to connect more actively with other Greek associations and chambers operating in the Balkans, but also to continue cooperating with other European chambers operating in Serbia.

SOLIDARITY

We are very glad that Greek companies have once again displayed their socially responsible awareness and solidarity with Serbia in the struggle against COVID-19

COOPERATION 

Serbian institutions have always shown a readiness to provide us with answers to questions that concern the operations of our members

SUPPORT

For both the government and the private sector, it is extremely important for there to be open dialogue and mutual support that will stimulate the business environment during this uncertain time

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