Balkan businesses flock to Thessaloniki trade fair

THESSALONIKI – A number of Balkan companies have brought their products to the 66th Thessaloniki International Fair, in the hope of brokering deals with Greek and regional businessmen, at a time when Greece has emerged as a force for political and economic stability in the region. Also, state and private representations from Albania, Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Romania and Turkey came here to extend a network of trade and business cooperation with partners in the region. But according to one investment expert, the trade fair has failed to reach its goal of bringing together the region’s business community under one roof, enabling them to exchange ideas and even form alliances, cooperation or even broker trade deals. The exhibit has begun to lose both its esteem and its purpose, Efthimios Mouratidis, Investment Project Manager at the Hellenic Center for Investment (ELKE), told Kathimerini’s English Edition. In my opinion it needs to be upgraded and to become more selective in the admittance of visitors, to those with a genuine interest in trade. And this is the meaning of international trade fairs, bringing people who have a genuine interest in trade, cooperation and alliances, inside this one venue. ELKE is a state organization seeking, promoting and supporting foreign direct investment in Greece and international alliances with Greek companies, while administering the government’s primary investment program. In addition, its staff processes applications for investment incentives in order to ensure that all regulatory requirements are met, and then submitting its recommendations to the Ministry of National Economy. According to ELKE, Greece is the main springboard to the regional markets of the Balkans, Black Sea, Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean regions, while Athens has invested more than $2.5 billion in the Balkans. Mouratidis underlined that Greece’s private sector has displayed a strong desire to enter the Balkan market, but its efforts are hindered by the Greek government’s delay in releasing 180 billion drachmas in credits for Balkan reconstruction that would spur investments by Greek firms. From what we know there is an expressed interest, and if we look at the current situation we will see that there are a number of Greek companies that have opened offices in neighboring countries, and they are some very important ones as well, Mouratidis remarked. The only calamity to these efforts is the situation in Skopje, said another ELKE analyst. Greece is by far the leading country in the region in the number of businesses with investment in the region, even ahead of Turkey. Balkan Reconstruction According to the European Agency for Reconstruction of the Balkans, hundreds of million of dollars have already been injected in the Balkan region, namely to Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro, while more funds are yet to come. Specifically, the agency spent 180 million euros last year in Serbia, while this year the funds are expected to reach between 151 and 220 million. The sectors receiving these funds on the ground include energy, infrastructure, agriculture, food products, enterprises, and health. In Kosovo, the agency spent 8 million euros in 1998, 127 million in 1999, 262 million in 2000 and an expected 285 million this year. Again, the sectors that have been the recipients of large portions from these funds include: Energy, public utilities, housing, civil administration, infrastructure, agriculture, enterprise and health. The agency, though, has not been as generous with Montenegro, which in 1998 had received 5 million euros’ worth of aid, rising to 23 million in 1999, but dropping again to 19 and 15 million in 2000 and 2001 respectively. The sectors that these funds were distributed to include: Energy and public utilities, infrastructure, agriculture and enterprises. Greece has yet to release the funds that have already allocated for the reconstruction. In Thessaloniki, at the booth operated by the European agency, officials were hard to come by at times, leaving their exhibit unattended for several hours and indicating the low turnout of key visitors that exhibit organizers were hoping to bring here. Parallel to European efforts to help rebuild economies in the region, the countries themselves are undertaking a number of initiatives that aim at reviving trade and business with their neighbors. One of the several countries that send representations from local branches of the chamber of commerce to the 66th TIF is Albania, with a booth from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Tirana, and a second one from the port city of Durres. It was only a few years ago that Albania, a country of 3.4 million people, saw the collapse of its banking system with the collapse of pyramid schemes in which many saw their life savings disappear in a climate of chaos and violence. Now the country is trying to revive its economy and attract foreign investment that would stimulate its private sector. According to the Tirana Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the private sector has become predominant. Some 99 percent of around 56,000 registered active enterprises across the country (through the end of 1999) are now privately-owned companies. Over 23,000 of them are in Tirana. Chamber records also show that Greece has emerged as the second-largest importer and trade partner for Albania in the last decade, accounting for 29.2 percent of its total imports in 1998, second only to Italy. Another country in the region that has been working closely with Greece in establishing a strong trade bridge is Turkey, which through the Greek-Turkish Chamber of Commerce and other institutions has managed to stimulate a previously non-existent trade link.

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