The fact, that Austrian engagement in Serbia has remained very stable over the years, proves that it is based on long-term objectives and commitments
For annual edition of InFocus Austria, we spoke with Mrs. Erika Teoman-Brenner – Austrian Commercial Counselor: “The crisis last year slowed down trade between Austria and Serbia. Preliminary data for 2020 show that imports from Serbia to Austria have declined by almost 17% and Austrian exports to Serbia by 13%. At the same time, we are pleased to see that Austria has managed over many years to hold its position as one of the most important investors in the country”, she pointed out.
Economic relations between Austria and Serbia have long been exceptionally good. What else can we do to improve them and the cooperation between the two countries?
We have indeed witnessed an impressive growth of trade between our two countries in the past years. Our trade gap has narrowed and the structure has improved. At the same time, we are pleased to see that Austria has managed over many years to hold its position as one of the most important investors in the country. The fact, that Austrian engagement in Serbia has remained very stable over the years, proves that it is based on long-term objectives and commitments.
There are many different factors that determine the investment activities and trade between our two countries. Hence, it is not easy to single out individual measures that could lead to intensify them further, also because international developments have a considerable impact on how companies shape their business strategies. What we at ADVANTAGE AUSTRIA can and will – do, is to continuously explore opportunities to bring together interested business partners from both countries by identifying new areas of cooperation. For example, we get more and more involved in matching promising start-up companies from Serbia with their counterparts in Austria. By using more virtual networking and business matching events we hope that we can not only overcome some of the restrictions imposed by the current pandemic, but also create new channels for establishing contacts between interested parties. We also think that more Serbian investments in Austria could lead to stronger ties between our countries and we will intensify our efforts to present Austria´s unique features as an interesting location for international business.
On the other hand, there is also a great potential for new investments in Serbia by the Serbian diaspora in Austria. We therefore welcome very much new initiatives that aim at strengthening and encouraging entrepreneurship with and through the Serbian diaspora, like the Link Up ! Serbia project, funded by the Austrian Development Agency.
In late 2020, ADVANTAGE AUSTRIA Belgrade surveyed Austrian companies in Serbia, which showed that Serbia is still an attractive location for Austrian companies. What else can Serbia do to attract more Austrian investors?
The results of our survey are indeed encouraging, both in terms of the current status and in view of the future. Nevertheless, Austrian companies have identified several areas, which continue to pose considerable challenges and need to be improved. As in previous years, shortcomings in the judiciary, lack of transparency and bureaucratic hurdles are seen as major reasons for concern. At the same time there are also market-related factors that impact their business, mainly underdeveloped infrastructure and, more generally, a lower level of quality awareness . Our companies also consider matters regarding the labour force as crucial for their success, especially the availability of skilled staff. It is worth noting, that despite the outfall of the crisis, the vast majority of our companies in Serbia have kept their workforce at pre-crisis level.
How do you think the pandemic and the continuation of the crisis will affect the economy this year, and what challenges await both Austria and Serbia?
Thanks to the Serbian government´s rapid and comprehensive response to the first wave of the pandemic, the country did not have such a deep decline in GDP, employment and wages as other similar countries in Europe. It is yet to be seen to what extent this will affect the government´s ability to fund important projects and reforms this year. These are challenges that practically all countries face these days. The Austrian government is particularly concerned with rising unemployment, hence, considerable funds are invested in labour market measures geared at maintaining employment, while at the same time offering incentives for upgrading the qualification of the workforce. On a more general level, we will see fundamental changes in the world of work and the rapid adoption of new digital technologies.
The Western Balkans region has several good initiatives, from so-called Mini-Schengen to a common supplier database. How important is it to develop innovation, sustainable development in the region and joint action?
Regional cooperation is a key factor for political stability and economic development . The Western Balkans countries have many problems in common that can only be addressed and solved through joint action. One of them is the relatively low level of innovation, while at the same time the region suffers from a massive brain drain. By pooling resources, both in terms of human and financial capacity, the region will be able to tap into its innovative potential which will lead to more competitiveness and sustainable economic growth.
Austrian companies have an exceptional influence on work habits, as well as on the development of dual education in our country. How important is the exchange of experiences and knowledge?
Introducing a dual vocational training systematically is a highly demanding task. Given the excellent and close relations between Serbia and Austria, we have been very pleased to share our knowledge and experience with the institutions involved here in Serbia. At the same time we encourage Austrian companies in Serbia to actively engage in the new dual vocational training programme, so that we could get valuable feedback from the business sector. All this is part of our cooperation with the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the leading force in strengthening the role of practice-based learning and training in Serbia.
Living in Serbia
You have been living in Serbia for almost 6 years. What do you like the most about the country?
Living and working in Serbia has been a tremendously positive experience for me. People are very welcoming and open-minded here and it is not difficult at all to communicate with them, partly also because so many of them are fluent either in English or German. It is also nice to experience how much affection people have here for Austria, especially for Vienna. What I also like very much is exploring Serbias regions. Having lived in Vienna, Budapest and Istanbul, I see aspects of all these cultures reflected in the cultural diversity of the country. And finally, it goes without saying that I thoroughly enjoy the tasty food in this country and the impressive variety of restaurants and cafés in Belgrade that make up so much of its vibrant charm.