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Greece: Private Businesses Invest In Balkan Economies

By Alexis Papasotiriou

Greek business has responded to the opening up of Eastern Europe much more effectively than the Greek government. As the government squabbles with its neighbors, Greek businesses have invested, capitalizing on their knowledge of Balkan business practices. Correspondent Alexis Papasotiriou reports from Athens.

Athens, 25 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The fall of communism in Eastern Europe could have been a great political opportunity for Greece to act as role model to its newly democratic neighbors. But rather than helping the new governments in the region with their political and economic reforms, the government got into a series of disputes with Albania and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

Nor did the Greek government respond well to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe who came seeking work. The government failed to introduce adequate immigration laws, and chaos resulted. Discontent with rising crime -- which was largely blamed on the immigrants -- only added to the problem.

By contrast, Greek private businesses were quick to perceive the opportunities for new markets in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Hellenic Telecommunications, Intracom, Delta Dairy, and many others moved into the region with some important investments.

Greek companies are now major players in some Balkan economies. Closer economic ties with Macedonia and Albania are seen to be opening the way for improved relations between the those countries' governments and Greece. Last month, a Greek oil company bought a majority share in a Macedonian oil company in a deal that includes a pledge to build a pipeline between the Greek port of Thessaloniki and the Macedonian capital Skopje. The Greek company, Hellenic Petroleum, says Greece controls 10 percent of the Albanian retail trade in petroleum products.

In other Balkan countries, Greek businesses have also forged important ties. Bulgaria's commercial attache in Athens, Minko Gurdjikov, told RFE/RL that Greek companies have made significant investments in his country. Major Greek banks including Eurobank and the National Bank of Greece have opened branches in Bulgaria.

Gurdjikov says cooperation between the two countries is particularly close because Greece represents Bulgaria in NATO and the European Union, organizations Bulgaria is keen to join. Most Bulgarian ministries employ Greek advisers to help them meet EU standards and regulations. He says Greek businesses, too, offer valuable know-how for their Balkan counterparts in how to meet EU norms.

Such advice is easier to accept from Greece than from other EU countries, as attitudes and work practices in Greece are similar to those in Balkan countries. In the 1950s and 60s, Greece went through a political and economic transformation similar to what the former communist countries are going through now. While in many Western countries there are perhaps four distributors nationwide for a given product, in Greece and other Balkan countries, there can be as many as 30 or even 50. Western managers may find such a market bewildering, but Greek managers know how to work in such a system, using personal contacts. Moreover, Greek is spoken in many Balkan countries, giving Greek investors an advantage.

Greece is benefiting not only from its own investments in the Balkans, but also from that of other countries. Greece's location, and its stability as a member of the European Union and NATO, makes it a good base for foreign companies that want to do business in the emerging economies of the Balkans. Many Western companies already have offices in Athens and can use those offices as a base to expand businesses to other Balkan countries.

Doing business in the Balkans, of course, is not always easy even for Greeks. In the former Yugoslav countries, Greek businesses fear that political volatility may cause them to lose legitimate contracts made with government authorities. Still, Greek businesses are a force in the Balkan economies, setting an example for their own government. Just last month, the Greek government began a greater effort to reach out to its Balkan neighbors, approving an aid package for economic reconstruction.