ECONOMY

Serb tycoon says his country can only be saved by a Putin

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Bogoljub Karic, one of Serbia’s richest men, says only someone with a strong hand can clean up the country and revive the economy after more than a decade of war, sanctions and black-market profiteering. «Serbia needs a Putin. We need to see where all the money has gone, who the tycoons are and what they’ve been doing for the last 15 years,» he said in reference to the Russian leader’s tough line on oligarchs. The most prominent of the five siblings in the Karic family of tycoons, he is one of many successful Balkan businessmen now turning to politics, pledging to put their business skills at the service of the nation. His common touch has clearly struck a chord with Serbs impatient for a better life. Karic’s year-old party shot to third place in opinion polls, making him a kingmaker or even contender for the premiership in future elections. He talks passionately and at length about the need to root out corruption and says the «pillage of Serbia» by bad politicians in the last 15 years left a bad reputation that keeps investors away. «Things now are worse than during the 1990s,» Karic said in a swipe at the Western-backed reformers who came to power in 2001. Karic is keen to stress his humble beginnings in the 1970s, and tells the story with gusto in his native Kosovo dialect. «We founded the first family-owned private business in the former Yugoslavia, it was actually more of an experiment,» he told Reuters at his party offices in an affluent Belgrade suburb. «We bought old Peugeot car parts from a scrap yard and made them into agricultural tools. We made millions…» From there, the firm expanded into telecommunications, banking and construction in Serbia and the then-Soviet Union, running on what Karic insists was entrepreneurial spirit alone. Since founding his party, Karic has been taking his hands off his business interests, and last week sold one of his main assets, a contested stake in the Mobtel mobile phone carrier. He cautions potential investors that business in Serbia is only possible for those with good connections. «If they are not supported by the government, they will not manage to complete their projects. They have to make deals with politicians. It’s the only way, if they do that they can buy the whole of Serbia for nothing.»