ECONOMY

Greek firm among four bidders for Serb plants

BELGRADE – The privatization of five Serbian sugar plants has attracted bids from four foreign firms but the non-regulated domestic market seems to have deterred key European players, an industry source said yesterday. In June, Serbia launched a tender for five of its 15 sugar plants, eight of which closed down in the 1990s when wars, sanctions and mismanagement under former President Slobodan Milosevic reduced the beet area to 43,000 hectares in 2001 from 110,000 in 1991. The sugar refineries in Crvenka, Kovacica, Zabalj, Bac and Pecinci have a combined annual output of 200,000 tons of the total of 750,000 tons for the whole of Serbia. The decision on who will get the five plants is due by the end of September. A source close to the five plants said one domestic and four foreign firms had offered bids for the plants located in Serbia’s breadbasket Vojvodina region. Austria’s Agrana, Italian group Sfir – which owns six plants in Italy, Spain and Portugal – and Greek Hellenic Sugar – also eying the Bitola sugar plant in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – are said to be among the four. Sfir has already purchased for some $3 million a small, insolvent sugar plant in Nova Crnja, in Vojvodina, close to Romania where it plans to get extra beets for the plant. Industry sources link the foreign firms’ interest in the region to solid sugar beet output, a regional sugar market of about 1 million tons a year and EU perks to Balkan states aimed at helping their postwar economies recover. The concessions provide for Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, FYROM and Albania to sell domestically produced sugar to the EU, free of duties and quotas, at a price of around $600 per ton, compared to some $200 per ton on the world market. But major French, British, German and US firms seemed to have disregarded the tender. «Well-known EU sugar firms ignored the sales because the government did not meet their expectation of adopting a law regulating Serbia’s sugar market,» said Miodrag Kostic, head of MK Commerce, the domestic firm bidding for three of the plants. «Our market is not regulated like in the EU, but is no worse than markets in neighboring Hungary, Bulgaria or Romania,» he told Reuters in an interview from Novi Sad, Vojvodina’s capital. The government has said that the battered country cannot provide full protection to sugar producers as the EU does to include a guaranteed price for a certain quantity of sugar. «Serbia, with its meager budget, cannot afford a strictly regulated market according to EU standards,» Kostic added. Serbia’s sugar imports are liberalized but subject to a fixed import duty of eight dinars ($0.130) per kilogram and 20-percent customs duty. Exports are restricted by a quota regime.