Greek-Serbian relations are excellent. Greek investors have many reasons to invest in Serbia. Greece considers Serbia to be a factor of strategic importance for the stability and security in the wider region
In addition to the Joint Declaration on the Strategic Partnership which sets the framework for upgrading and deepening our bilateral cooperation, Greece and Serbia remain also committed to expand their cooperation through multilateral schemes. I would like to take this opportunity to extend, once more, our sincere gratitude and appreciation to Serbia for its assistance and support to Greece during the devastating wildfires.
Two years after signing of the Declaration on the Strategic Partnership between our countries, what changed in our, already excellent, cooperation and in which areas we may see the expansion?
Greek-Serbian relations are excellent. They are founded on close historical and cultural ties of friendship and solidarity.
The Joint Declaration on the Strategic Partnership between Greece and Serbia was signed in Athens during the state visit of President Vucic (December 2019). Its gradual implementation is a significant tool to further expand and deepen our multilevel cooperation. The Declaration enhances cooperation in a wide range of sectors, including security, civil protection, connectivity, renewable energy sources and support for Serbia’s bid to join the European Union.
Even though, the Covid-19 pandemic and the urgent need to deal with its socio-economic implications have delayed its full implementation, we look forward to stepping up the pace.
What is the situation today in Greece, when we are speaking of Covid-19?
Greece responded swiftly to the pandemic and took strict measures to contain the spread of the virus. During the summer of 2020 we introduced health protocols which were updated and enhanced during the summer of 2021 in order to ensure that our visitors enjoy a safe stay in Greece.
However, given that the epidemiological situation worldwide remains uncertain, the government has set up a road map with a dual goal: protection of public health and progressive return to normalcy. Today, apart from the public health measures in force, our most powerful weapon against Covid-19 is the vaccination programme. It is encouraging that since mid-August there has been an increasing trend in new vaccination appointments. However, building a wall of immunity requires further targeted action.
In order to urge as many fellow citizens as possible to get vaccinated, the government has adopted initiatives such as the “Freedom Pass”, a digital debit card for tourism and culture granted to all young people aged 18-25 who have been vaccinated, “the vaccination at home programme” for those who are unable to visit the vaccination centres, and “the pilot vaccination programme” carried out outside churches by mobile units of the Health Ministry.
Last but not least, during the visit of the Minister of Tourism, Mrs. Tatjana Matic to Athens in March this year, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed for the mutual recognition of vaccine certificates. Since then, the movement of people between the two countries has been extremely facilitated.
Greece had experienced its worst heat wave since 1987 and terrible wildfire. You fought a great battle. What is the situation today and whether the topic of climate change should be a priority in relation to the topics such are the Covid-19 or migrant crisis?
First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to extend, once more, our sincere gratitude and appreciation to Serbia for its assistance and support to Greece during the devastating wildfires. The help by the Serbian fire-fighters was extremely valuable.
These events are solid evidence and an alarming sign that the climate crisis is no longer a distant threat but a bitter reality. In this respect, Greece’s response has been prompt and resolute.
At a national level, the Greek government established the Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Ministry in order to address the challenges of climate crisis and implement programmes to strengthen the Civil Protection Mechanism.
At an international level, Greece is leading efforts to raise awareness and engage partners to make the region more resilient to the effects of climate change. This is the reason why Greece included this crucial topic to the agenda of the EUMED9 Summit which took place on 17 September in Athens. The participating Mediterranean and Southern EU countries agreed that urgent and ambitious global action is necessary in order to tackle the climate crisis. To this end, they adopted the “Athens Declaration on climate change and the environment in the Mediterranean” focusing on climate change, biodiversity, forest management, marine environment, and civil protection, prevention and preparedness.
How much did the Greek economy suffer in 2021, because of the coronavirus’ impact on the tourism industry?
All countries were affected by the pandemic and Greece wasn’t an exception. My country’s heavy dependence on tourism made the economy particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.
Tourism has a significant contribution to the Greek economy, reaching 21% of the GDP on an annual basis. Due to the restrictive measures in the movement of people, tourist businesses recorded heavy losses, as the number of tourists in 2020 decreased by 78% compared to 2019.
However, the Greek economy, although strongly shaken, endured. According to the data of Hellenic Statistical Authority, 2020 closed with a 8% contraction only. This year, things are much better. According to the data of the Bank of Greece, tourist arrivals increased by 851.8% in June 2021, compared to June 2020. We expect that by the end of this year we will have an increase of the GDP by 5.5%, maybe even more.
The restrictions that the pandemic imposed on our daily life made the Greek Government to seek alternatives in order to keep the economy running. Thus, the digitization of the public administration was accelerated and a significant number of businesses demonstrated a strong ability to adapt by introducing the practice of tele-working and selling through internet (e-commerce). According to data by the Ministry of Finance last year, there was an increase in electronic transactions by € 3 billion compared to 2019.
We strongly believe that next year, when the effects of the pandemic will decrease, the Greek economy will boom and the GDP will be much higher than this year.
Earlier this year you met with Minister Stefanovic, then in June with Minister Vulin. How would you describe the cooperation with the Government of the Republic of Serbia and Serbian institutions?
Talks with members of the Serbian Government and other high-ranking officials are always held in a cordial atmosphere which reflects our long-standing relationship. Such meetings cover a wide range of topics. We review our bilateral cooperation, exchange ideas, share good practices and propose initiatives. Our conversations can only be described as open and sincere.
What are the potentials for quality improvement in all fields of cooperation not only bilaterally, but also multilaterally?
In addition to the Joint Declaration on the Strategic Partnership which sets the framework for upgrading and deepening our bilateral cooperation, Greece and Serbia remain also committed to expand their cooperation through multilateral schemes.
Let me remind you that last April the first trilateral meeting between Serbia, Greece and Cyprus was held, here, in Belgrade. Our Foreign Ministers discussed the prospects for developing multilateral cooperation, promoting synergies and establishing joint activities in a number of fields, such as energy security through energy diversification, as well as transport connectivity.
Moreover, as of July this year, Greece has taken over the Chairmanship-in-office of the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP). This is a unique opportunity to work with Serbia and the rest of our SEE partners to promote specialized regional cooperation in priority areas.
Greece supports Serbia on its EU accession path. How important do you think Serbia’s role is in the Western Balkans region?
Greece considers Serbia to be a factor of strategic importance for the stability and security in the wider region. In this light, Greece has always been a staunch supporter of Serbia’s integration to the EU. We strongly believe that this is Serbia’s natural place and we are ready to provide any technical and practical assistance to its accession efforts if needed.
Serbia has the potential to serve as a model for the region on its path towards the EU. We welcome Serbia’s decision to abide by the New Enlargement Methodology and its determination to accelerate the necessary reforms.
What reforms does Serbia need to implement to improve the business environment?
Serbia is a leading investment place with competitive operating costs and highly qualified labor. The Serbian government has passed significant reforms to a number of laws, such as on labour, construction, inspections and privatization that have helped improve the business environment.
The Serbian economy presents new prospects for foreign investors and there is always room for improvement, specifically in fields like the digitalization of the economy, transparency in public procurements and the modernization of infrastructure (roads, railways, waste management etc). In addition to that, strengthening the institutional and regulatory environment is important in order to boost confidence and predictability for economic operators.
What kind of connection to Belgrade and Serbia do you feel and which Serbian customs do you particularly like?
My connection to Belgrade and Serbia runs deep. I enjoy how the city buzzes with energy and I always appreciate a refreshing excursion to the wonderful Serbian countryside. Since this is my second term in Belgrade – I have served as Deputy Head of Mission before (2000-2004) – I consider myself extremely fortunate to have returned as Ambassador to this country and its heartwarming people. Regarding Serbian customs, there are several that I cherish, but for the sake of brevity, if I had to name one, that would definitely be the Slava tradition of celebrating each family’s Saint. We do not have this tradition in my country. Instead, we celebrate name days. For example, one like me who is called Yorgos celebrates on St. George’s day. In brief, in Serbia I feel at home.