ECONOMY

Kosovo wants Greek business

Kosovo is the only Balkan market without a significant Greek business presence, though Pristina is only a three-hour drive from Thessaloniki. The hostile attitude of Greeks to the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia and their largely indiscriminate support for former Serb leader Milosevic’s policy, combined with the uncertainty marking the new political order in Kosovo, fed a longtime and mutual suspicion. As a result, a climate conducive to development of investment and business initiatives never materialized. Greek commerce was influenced by a media-fueled picture of widespread disorder in Kosovo and a complete lack of access channels. That left the field open to an invasion of Italian, Turkish and Slovene firms that imported mainly food, cheap clothes, fruit and building materials. However, the ice now seems to be thawing. Following the recent visit of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who enjoyed a warm reception by Kosovo’s leaders and media, a mutual interest for the development of trade relations began emerging. In Athens on Thursday, Kosovo’s Energy Minister Etem Ceku met with Deputy Development Minister Giorgos Salagoudis. On May 16, Kosovo’s minister for trade and industry, Bujar Dugolli, is expected to arrive in Greece with Kosovar businessmen. They will meet with Deputy Foreign Minister Evripidis Stylianidis and Greek business leaders. The Kosovars want access to the port of Thessaloniki and, striving for independence, are building bridges toward Athens. The truth is that, for the time being, conditions in this Serbian province are not at all attractive for serious investment schemes, mainly due to the very inadequate credit system. Despite the existence of seven private banks, investors do not feel secure and believe there is low purchasing power. However, developments seem to be leading to the establishment of Kosovo as an independent nation, where those businessmen already with a foothold in the country will have the advantage. In that aspect, Greeks are lagging behind and must run. Greek products, such as fruit, juices and other foods, do arrive in Kosovo but through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which resells them, taking advantage of the favorable bilateral customs agreement. Although on the basis of the available data alone Kosovo may be described as the poorest region of Europe, this does not mean that all Kosovars are also poor. On one hand, the World Bank may say that 50 percent of the population lives on 2 euros per day, but this is a half-truth. It does not take into account the large sums of money sent home by emigrants and money made in the underground economy. Diplomats and businesspeople acquainted with the region argue that the average Kosovar’s income is sufficient to cover basic needs. Greek business should explore this neighboring market. Business leaders say it would be a good outlet for several industries. Consider the thousands of tons of apples, peaches and kiwi fruits that rot in Macedonia every year, due to a saturation of the traditional markets for them. Or the small clothing businesses closing in droves due to poor sales and lack of demand. Or the building materials sector that appears shaky when Kosovo has one of Europe’s highest construction growth rates. The road to Kosovo is, indeed, open to Greek commerce. But the move requires boldness and putting aside stereotypes and fixations that imagine robbers and murderers await every Greek passing the border post at Blace.