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BELGRADE -- Serbian businesses are upset over what they call an "economic invasion" by Croatian firms and are asking the government to help protect domestic companies, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports.

Business leaders in Serbia have said Serbia risks falling into a "vassal relationship" with Croatia and other more-developed countries in the region unless the government assists them in defending companies at home and helping them expand abroad.

Several large Croatian companies have in recent years ventured into Serbian markets, buying troubled firms mainly in the food-procesing sector.

A Serbian media outlet wrote recently that the "final phase of a Croatian plan" to economically conquer Serbia was July's 382 million euro ($515 million) acquisition by Croatia's Atlantic Group of the Slovenian food giant Droga Kolinska, which owns some of Serbia's main water bottling, coffee roasting, and candy companies.

But Serbian Capital Investment Minister Verica Kalanovic told RFE/RL on August 19 that the nationality of the owners of a company is irrelevant to her. She said she only judges companies by their level of success.

"The successful ones are are those that employ a large number of people, regularly pay their salaries, and respect Serbian laws," Kalanovic said. "I do not divide large investors and company owners by their nationality."

Radoslav Veselinovic, who owns the Serbian firm Galeb Group and is the former chairman of Serbia's Chamber of Commerce, said Serbian businesses need the same kind of support -- both at home and abroad -- that companies from other countries enjoy.

"Five years ago, [Galeb Group] wanted to buy a Croatian company and had the support of our banks," Veselinovic said. "Everything was agreed to but at the last minute a Croatian group jumped in and bought a controlling stake of the company. A Croatian newspaper headline read: 'We prevented a Serbian company from buying one of ours.'"

Milan Kovacevic, a Belgrade-based economic analyst, said Serbian businesses are only trying to squeeze more from the state and cover up their bad business decisions and strategies.

Kovacevic said "the problem lies elsewhere: our people are not trying hard enough to sell products in the Croatian market, although there are some that
could be very successful."
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