OPINION

Leadership in the Balkans

In recent years Greek businesses in the Balkans have shown overt creativity. It’s not that Greece leads the field in a region with a total population of over 140 million people. It’s that Greek businesses are undoubtedly playing a major role in the economies of countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, while the National Bank of Greece’s purchase of Finansbank has opened the way into the Turkish market. Greek banks alone have opened some 1,000 branches in the Balkans and another 3,600 industries and commercial companies from Greece are raking in profits there. Europeans are impressed and have been buying Greek banks and insurance companies as a gateway to the lucrative Balkan market. Yet Greece should not rest on its laurels. Romania and Bulgaria join the EU on January 1, making them more attractive to foreign investment. This year Bulgaria will receive 5 billion dollars in foreign investment and Romania 8 billion, with more if not double forecast for next year. Yet Greece only had foreign investments of about 1 billion to 1.5 billion dollars, with the exception of this year, when the sale of the Emporiki Bank will boost the figure to 3 billion. Bulgaria has announced that on joining the EU it will reduce business tax to 10 percent; Romania, which now taxes profits at 16 percent, is expected to follow suit. Of course these countries are still far behind us, but the fable of the tortoise and the hare should give us pause for thought. Greece has to retain its lead in the region, exploit its geopolitical advantages to the full and increase its growth rate. That means liberating creative forces in private enterprise from state shackles. As in the 18th century, it is private interests, not the state, that are infiltrating the Balkans.