‘Investing dangerously’ in Kosovo

Argyro Ramnaki is a businesswoman – not a very rare species in Greece. The difference with her is that she has chosen to set up shop in Kosovo, in a society where a woman’s place is usually in the home. What’s more, she is one of the few foreigners to have invested money – at least openly – in the Balkans’ most troubled corner. She has opened a franchise of a French children’s clothing chain, anticipating a turn of profit some time in the future. «The difficulties are big but the risk is worth it. If one lays the basis now, there are good prospects to gain in future, when the situation stabilizes,» she says. It does take an optimistic investor to see the glass half full in Kosovo today. The region is not a state, there are no investment rules, and there is no credit system or elementary security for a firm. How can a businessperson strive to gain a market share in a place where people have learned to live on international economic aid and ethnic Albanians and Serbs may start slaughtering each other at any moment? «Anyone wishing to invest here must think it over very carefully. For the time being there is neither political nor economic stability, but things are bound to quiet down at some point. There is a virgin market and those applying themselves to it gain an advantage for later,» Ramnaki says. Her motives? Both economic and romantic. She found herself here before the war as a representative of a British cosmetics chain, with the aim of promoting sales and help implement social programs funded by her group. «We helped the refugees and after the bombings we constructed five schools in destroyed villages,» she adds. The sentimental ties she formed at the time helped her decide to stay later. Things were not easy, as Kosovars did not exactly think the best of Greeks, whom they saw on the side of the Serbs. But Ramnaki gained the confidence of people. «Those Greeks, like us, who offered humanitarian work in the difficult days, did at least a small part in changing the negative attitude toward Greece somewhat.» Her shop, in the heart of Pristina’s commercial district, is known throughout as «the Greek woman’s shop»; when she appears at a restaurant or cafe in town, she is received with Greek music. Dire economics Nevertheless, business is not particularly good, for the predictable reason that her high-quality merchandise are rather expensive for a town that is not particularly prosperous. Most people may be unaware that the economic situation in Kosovo remains on the edge five years after the ousting of the Serb authorities and its conversion into a protectorate. Unemployment exceeds 70 percent, there is no productive base worth speaking of yet, the economy is maintained by international aid, the money spent by the 40,000 or so foreign soldiers and members of non-governmental organizations, and the underground economy is the dominant mode for the distribution of goods. And all this while hatred between ethnic Albanians and the remaining Serbs continues to accumulate, threatening to spark off an explosion of violence again, like last March, when there were 20 dead and about 700 injured, taking Kosovo 10 years back. «We had believed we had left problems behind but were belied on March 17. We realized in the most painful way that the problem continues to exist,» Ramnaki admits. Nevertheless, she insists it is worth it for Greek businesspeople «to take a look at this place,» but with a view to reaping the benefits later. But her call is unlikely to be heeded, and not without good reason. Remember FYROM? But looking back, this is how the onslaught of Greek investors began in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where they are dominant today. There were people at the height of the dispute over the official name of the neighboring country in the early 1990’s who advocated «economic suffocation,» sending «five or six tanks» that would capture Skopje, while others shuddered at the thought that the «hordes» of then president Kiro Gligorov would invade Greek Macedonia! But like Ramnaki in Kosovo today, few bold businesspeople then insisted that the then-newfound state of FYROM was a virgin market for the Greeks, proving that if they risked all they also stood to gain all. Kosovo looks like a good destination for some Greek products, like foodstuffs, clothes and construction materials. Greece has a proximity advantage; Pristina is only three-and-a-half hours’ drive from Thessaloniki. Already, on supermarket shelves and in the countless outdoor grocery stalls one finds Greek canned fruit juices; others sell shirts and trousers made in Thessaloniki, a brand of bottled water from Epirus is a hit, while trucks from northern Greece bring bricks and cement to rebuilt the villages and roads destroyed by the war. But all this activity remains minimal, conducted piecemeal by Kosovars personally buying quantities in Greece and then reselling them there. If Greeks do not soon orient themselves towards an organized presence in Kosovo, they may well be overtaken by the Chinese!