H.E. Constantine Economides, Ambassador of Greece to Serbia:

True Friendship Despite Adversities

As a longstanding member of the EU, Greece consistently supports Serbia’s European perspective. Excellent bilateral relations are further supported through the strong presence of Greek companies and the longstanding friendship between our people. Some of the challenges that both countries are currently facing haven’t altered the bigger picture.

Constantine Economides

Although both countries are facing some global challenges, such as dealing with the migrant crisis or struggling to cope with internal economic imbalances, the strong friendship, good bilateral ties and economic interconnectedness established through Greece’s resilient presence in the Serbian economy promise the further development of mutual ties.

Serbia and, to a greater extent, Greece are both affected by the fact that the EU still doesn’t have a unified response to the migrant crisis. What is your view of the challenges ahead?

The intense refugee and migratory flow which Greece has been experiencing from its eastern border has reached unprecedented levels in the past months. Our immediate concern is to stem and manage the flow. In order to be effective, short-term measures need to be combined with a comprehensive long-term strategy. Addressing the root causes of this phenomenon is essential, as is cooperation with third countries. Everyone recognises that Turkey is under a great deal of pressure, hosting over two million refugees. Nevertheless, it remains a key country in managing the flow towards Europe, as it is on Turkish soil that refugees and migrants can be checked before being allowed to embark on their journey towards the EU. Furthermore, urgent action is needed to dismantle trafficking networks. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when dealing with this issue we should never forget that it concerns human beings, not just numbers on charts.

The majority of Greek citizens who participated in a recent public opinion survey said that they expected even tougher austerity measures this year. What is the current situation in Greek society and the Greek economy compared to the time prior to the reaching of an agreement with creditors?

Since the beginning of the crisis, a series of wide ranging austerity measures have been implemented in Greece. Measures of such magnitude and their adverse effects inevitably test the limits of social cohesion when it is most needed. After an extended period of negotiations, a new agreement between the Hellenic Republic and the Institutions was concluded in July 2015. This agreement has introduced the Third Programme for the support, fiscal adjustment and structural reform of the Greek economy. The timely and sustainable implementation of the current programme will depend on our ability to address effectively structural imbalances that affect the Greek economy, so that the social and economic impact of reforms will not be unevenly and severely felt by the most vulnerable. From an economic point of view, we are expecting the recovery process to accelerate in 2016, so that a return to positive growth can be possible during the second semester of 2016. This means that significant improvement of the economic climate in Greece is expected.

A series of wide ranging austerity measures have been implemented in Greece. Their timely and sustainable implementation depends on our ability to address structural imbalances that affect the Greek economy effectively

Greece has long been viewed as the EU member state tasked with making Serbia’s transition to the EU as smooth and efficient as possible. How true is that today and in which ways are our respective countries collaborating to complete this task?

As a longstanding member of the EU, Greece considers Serbia to be an intrinsic member of the European family and supports its European perspective steadfastly. Following the start of Serbia’s accession negotiations with the Union during the Hellenic Presidency in January 2014, the opening of the first two negotiating chapters last December represents a major new development in this respect. It goes without saying that Greece will continue to provide strong support and, within the Council of the European Union, facilitate all efforts exerted by the Serbian Government to achieve its strategic goal of EU accession. Furthermore, the excellent level of cooperation between our two countries in the field of accession negotiations was reaffirmed last year through the reinvigoration of the bilateral Memorandum of Cooperation on EU affairs. In particular, bilateral consultations were held twice in Belgrade and Athens respectively, while a specialised seminar was organised in Belgrade in the field of agriculture and rural development. In this context, a Serbian diplomat was hosted at the Directorate of EU Affairs of the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he successfully concluded a two-week exchange programme. In short, Greece is prepared to offer all possible assistance and knowhow to the Serbian government and administration, in its firm belief that Serbia’s European integration constitutes a factor of strategic importance for the stability, development and prosperity of the entire region.

Every time the Greek economy is in trouble, representatives of Greek banks and companies in Serbia assure us that the risky situation in Greece has no influence over their operations in Serbia. How much are Greek companies in Serbia actually affected by the challenges arising from their home country?

More than 200 Greek companies, employing about 25,000 people, are currently operating in Serbia, in sectors such as finance, construction, retail, banking, telecommunications and information technology etc. Despite the economic crisis, Greek companies have managed to maintain their stable and recognisable presence on the Serbian market. Greek banks in Serbia, in particular, have regained public confidence by using the crisis as an opportunity to restructure, in order to achieve safer and more robust growth in the near future.

The arrival of the retreating Serbian Army on the Greek island of Corfu during World War I represents one of the most important milestones in our shared history. This year we are celebrating a centenary of that true friendship between our two peoples

Do you think that the interest shown in Serbia by Greek companies has waned or increased in the meantime, and what can we hope for in the near future?

It is true that conditions on the domestic market have made it quite difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises in Greece to envisage business expansion abroad. However, bigger companies have continued to invest in the Serbian market, contributing significantly to the Serbian economy. In 2014 Greece was ranked 5th among the biggest foreign investors, while total Greek investments in Serbia today exceed €2.5 billion. The expected recovery and growth of the Greek economy, as well as the regaining of international confidence, will no doubt help companies increase their competitiveness and elaborate more ambitious business plans in terms of future foreign expansion.

Greece is the favourite holiday destination for many Serbs, but it seems that this fact, as well as excellent bilateral relations, is not sufficient to boost trade between the two countries significantly. What is the reason for that?

Greece is by far the most popular tourist destination for Serbian people. A significant increase in the number of Serbian visitors, nearing one million, was recorded in 2014. Unfortunately, Greece’s dominant position as a tourist destination is not reflected in bilateral trade. As such, we believe that there is great potential to develop our trade relations, considering both their modest starting base and Serbian consumers’ familiarity with Greek products, thanks to their summer holidays in our country.

We are this year marking the centenary of the arrival of the Serbian Army on Corfu and the centenary of true friendship between the people of Corfu and the people of Serbia. In your opinion, what is the reason that these relations have survived all historical turmoil?

The traditional friendship and excellent relations between Greece and Serbia are founded, first and foremost, on the close and strong bonds between our peoples. Undoubtedly, our common historical experiences have played a significant role in forging this long-standing relationship. By all accounts, the arrival of the retreating Serbian Army on the Greek island of Corfu during World War I represents one of the most important milestones in our shared history. Indeed, a hundred years ago the people of Corfu welcomed Serbian soldiers, together with their government in exile, providing them with a safe haven and shelter during one of the most difficult and turbulent periods of Serbian history. The frank and close ties that the Serbs established and cultivated with the local population during their stay on Corfu have lasted to the present time, whereas the memory of the event has left a deep impression in the collective conscience of our people. Of course, literature and/or folk music have played a significant role in this respect: for instance, “Tamo daleko”, one of my favourite Serbian songs, was composed on the island of Corfu and inspired by the tragic events of that particular historical turmoil. Accordingly, Corfu will always constitute an everlasting point of reference among the peoples of Greece and Serbia, nourishing our traditional bonds of friendship and cooperation.

The Greek Embassy has a new website, you personally have a Twitter account and the Embassy also has a dedicated Facebook page. Quite a few people in Serbia have responded to your invitation to nominate the most beautiful place in Greece and thereby gain the chance to win a trip to Greece. How efficient are social networks as a diplomatic tool?

During the last few years, public diplomacy has been adapting to modern social trends by enlarging its footprint in the field of digital social networks. As a consequence, social media sites are rapidly gaining ground in everyday diplomatic practice and becoming an indispensable medium in the tool kit of every diplomat. In this framework, the Greek Embassy in Serbia is actively engaged in the field of digital diplomacy. In particular, besides its official website and my personal Twitter account, the Greek Embassy currently maintains pages on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Flickr and Pinterest, whereas two new additional pages, on Linkedin and Google+, are about to be launched. Through its social media engagement, the Embassy interacts directly and in real time with the broader Serbian public, with the aim of bringing together all Greeks and friends of Greece in Serbia, while simultaneously disseminating the latest news about Greece and the Embassy’s activities, and thus increasing the visibility of its public action. The feedback we have thus far received from our followers is very positive, and we definitely intend to pursue our engagement in this particular field. I would like to take this opportunity to invite all your readers to follow us @GreeceInSerbia and share with us their thoughts, comments and suggestions, in order to further enhance our level of mutual understanding and cooperation.