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BALKANS: ‘Econoslavia’ Makes Sense If Yugoslavia Does Not

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Jan 12 2010 (IPS) - Politicians from the former Yugoslavia often speak about integration with the European Union (EU) as their major goal in this decade and possible salvation from the economic hardships the region faces.

For business and economy experts in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, for whom integration with Europe is a desirable goal, the logic readily extends to the restoration of Yugoslavia – in an economic sense.

“Let’s not lie about it, all our economies are small and microscopic,’’ said Slobodan Vucicevic from Droga Kolinska, a Serbian food concern. ” So, we are unattractive. The only real thing is to make a unique market from all those fragments and present a combined facade abroad as a single, more attractive investment point.”

Vucicevic was addressing a meeting of Serbian Association of Managers last month (Dec. 21 – 22), attended by prominent businessmen from the former Yugoslav nations, including Slovenia, the only former part of the federation that has become an EU member.

Their aim was to discuss possibilities for a joint strategy towards international investors and markets, as the global downturn since 2008 has crushed their poorly recovering economies. None of the new nations in the area, except Slovenia, has reached the pre-war GDP or seen stable development.

Prior to disintegration, Yugoslavia had 24 million people, a completely unified market and combined production, all of which disappeared with the 1991-95 wars. The cruelty, destruction and the 100,000 war victims have left animosities alive.

Nationalist political elites among Bosniaks and Croats still use the term “Yugoslavia” disapprovingly and routinely blame Belgrade, the former federation’s capital, for all that goes wrong even today.

Former federation gave birth to six new countries – Slovenia with less than two million people, Croatia 4.4 million, Bosnia 4.5, Serbia 7.4, Montenegro 650,000 and Macedonia two million.

“It doesn’t matter if we call the new economic integration Yugoslavia or Yugo-sphere or Econoslavia,” head of Croatian Association of Managers, Esad Colakovic, told IPS. “We have to connect regionally, forget our miniature markets and act together,” he added.

Nationalist politicians also tend to keep the animosities alive, but business experts say that everyday life and practice have surmounted many obstacles.

“Our company has opened three technological centres in the region,” Veselin Jevrosimovic, owner of the most prominent Serbian IT firm Comtrade, told reporters at the meeting. “Besides Belgrade, there is one in Sarajevo and one in Ljubljana (Slovenia), with 10 training centres in all former Yugoslav nations except Macedonia…For us businessmen, Yugo-sphere presents our present and our future; unfortunately, for politicians, it is still utopia.”

Jevrosimovic cited lack of political will to re-establish broken transportation systems of former Yugoslavia. “There still are no direct flights between Belgrade and Zagreb or from Belgrade to Split or Dubrovnik in Croatia since 1991. That’s a real mess.”

Official statistics say that despite war-time odds and political reluctance, Croatia has invested more than 650 million US dollars into Serbia since 2000, which makes a fifth of all foreign investments by that nation ever and stands above Russian investments in Serbia. Russia is routinely described in international media as a traditional ally of Serbia.

At the same time, Slovenia has invested 1.7 billion dollars in Serbian industry and economy since 2000, when the war-time regime of Slobodan Milosevic fell from power.

Both Croatian and Slovenian investors publicly say that it is better to invest into something known rather than something unknown. The nations share a common heritage and similar languages.

For the head of a Slovenian company , Tatjana Fink, the historic experience of working together in a former federation represents an advantage. ‘’We can still say this is a region of unexploited opportunities,” she said.

“Our experience should lead to the creation of competent centres in locations where people have expert knowledge – Slovenes are good in marketing, Serbia is good in development of new materials, while Croatia is good for technology development,’’ Fink said. ‘’That could present one important image abroad for investors who have become scarce at this time of crisis.”

For those who are still suspicious of any kind of Yugoslavia being re-invented, there was a suggestion coming from bankers attending the meeting. The larger the market the larger the interest of investors, they said, and proposed an item appropriate for the 21st century: a virtual stock exchange combining the Belgrade, Podgorica (Montenegro), Sarajevo (Bosnia), and Zagreb stock exchanges, which would not be posted in any of the capitals of the formerly warring sides, but in cyberspace.

“Such a stock exchange would combine all stocks and bonds of best regional quality, without anyone raising an eyebrow over its location,” said Slavko Caric, manager of a large international bank operating in the region.

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