The news of the gradual return of one of Greece’s four systemic banks to the Balkans brought back memories of the time when the Greek banking system had penetrated the Balkan region, heavily influencing its commercial activities.
The presence of Greek banks had strengthened the power of our voice in many Balkan capitals.
But after a decade of economic hardship and a drop in GDP, and after the pandemic crisis that followed, the setting is, unfortunately, entirely different.
The fiscal and banking crisis changed the profile, the capabilities and goals of the Greek banks, which were forced to retreat from most Balkan countries where they had invested considerable funds.
Our voice was weakened, and our influence diminished, if it existed at all.
But things are changing. These new incremental steps taken by some of the Greek banks allow for some, albeit restrained, optimism. Given the burden of nonperforming loans, future moves will not be easy to make.
After 10 years of systemic de-investment in Southeastern Europe it is hard to speak of a Greek “return.” It is clear that, in general terms, the Greek banks are still following a plan of withdrawal and will be highly selective and careful with any steps in the opposite direction.
There is a lot to be done – the Greek economy has to grow and the European Union funds have to be properly used – before Greece can return to the Balkans as the leading player it was at the beginning of the 21st century, when its banks had some presence in Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Albania, Cyprus and even Turkey.
For Greece to assume a leading geopolitical role in Southeastern Europe, it needs to also have a strong economic presence and influence in the region.