The re-emergence of the world economic system, in conjunction with the breakdown of the Cold War boundaries, has brought about the rise of the Region as an entity that, to a certain extent, supplants the nation-state. The Balkans, of course, have always laid claim to ethnic and geographical fragmentation and most certainly this still remains the case today. However, some critical changes have been, still are and hopefully will continue to be under way. Changes, that offer a valid hope that things may not be as they have always been in the past.
Since the early 1990s, Greece has relied on its, up till then dormant but now resurgent, traditional ties to act as a conduit for modernization in S.E. Europe and especially in the Balkans. Culture, religion, knowledge acquired in the past, personal contacts and an inherent trust all played their part at those difficult and – yes – sometimes dangerous moments. Failures there were – quite a few. These were the companies that looked upon the opening up of the frontiers as an opportunity to get rich quickly. Successes, though, were even more numerous and they depended on the following factors: perseverance, a willingness to absorb losses at the early stages of a business venture, the acceptance of local partners and honesty.
With a certain amount of pride that should not be mistaken as vanity, allow me to say that we did succeed as a country.
At first, the obstacles were nothing less than formidable:
A bloated, inefficient and initiative – shy bureaucracy – often riddled with lack of transparency and, more often than not, corruption.
A near complete legal and legislative vacuum.
A strong mistrust for anything foreign.
Yet there were strong positive factors as well: low labor and real estate costs, a well educated labor force and an acceptable level of technology – primarily in certain market niches – a strong cultural tradition and, above all, a realization on the part of the majority of the population that opportunity had come knocking. The willingness to change was there. It still is and this is exactly what makes one feel validly optimistic about the future of S.E. Europe.
Change over the last 15 years has been, thus, nothing short of monumental. With Bulgaria and Romania nearly ready to enter the E.U. and with Turkey embarked on the road to Brussels, it is, hopefully, only a matter of time before Albania and the state–heirs of Yugoslavia also find themselves on the path to European integration. When this happens, the Balkans may then perhaps overcome their Sarajevo legacy – as the powder-keg of Europe. A legacy that came very close to resurrection in the mid–to–late 1990s.
As it happens nearly always, trade and economic ties have proved to be the main catalyst for modernization. Today, business opportunities abound. A modern legal framework has been established. Corruption is no longer endemic. Mistrust has largely evaporated. Administrative burdens have been demolished. The labor force is even more skilled than before. Real estate continues to command competitive prices. And corporate tax is on the average at a low rate of 15%. As GDP has been rising, consumption has increased as well and conspicuous consumption is as vibrant as the demand for durables and consumer goods.
Today, there are more than 3,500 Greek firms operating in the Balkans. With 700 branches, Greek banks hold a market share of 14% in the financial sector. With investments totaling more than $ 8 billion, Greece is the largest investor in FYROM, Albania and Bulgaria, places 2nd in Romania and is among the leaders in Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Greece, thus, finds itself at the very heart of developments and is able to exert a positive influence. It serves already as a pool of legal knowledge, legislative initiatives, administrative services and technology transfers. It is active in textiles, telecommunications, informatics, software, construction and services in general – with particular emphasis on financial products and services.
In many respects, one may say that Greece
has reacquired its lost economic hinterland. The region naturally offers itself to the expansion of Greek firms. Unable, because of size and geography, to build multinationals on a world scale, Greece
had no alternative but to seek to become one of the leaders of this emerging regional powerhouse.