It looked almost as if some businesspeople had decided to restore the former Yugoslavia. I had that impression as I participated in the SEE Management Forum, held recently at the IEDC management school in the resort of Bled in the Slovenian foothills. Even in the worst of wartime, the business world never completely cut off its contacts.
The school itself in Bled, where around 6,000 students from 70 countries study each year, is sufficient proof of close relations.
But the crisis of the last two years has forced managers from Ljubljana to Tirana (although Albania was not part of Yugoslavia) to think about closer cooperation at home in an attempt to find money and contracts elsewhere.
It helps that the Slovenians, once the undisputed business rulers of the post-Yugoslav space, have suffered a loss in prestige and confidence, and even in the willingness of banks to lend to them. So they are more open to increased cooperation and seeking common solutions to the crisis. One plan that arose two years ago at a similar conference in Bled has taken concrete form. Its name is Feniks.
Originally it was an association of construction companies, the most affected by the crisis, with the goal of penetrating third markets. Domestic economies are so mired in crisis that companies need to look around elsewhere for business – for example in countries like Libya, where Yugoslavia had an excellent reputation.
According to Iztok Seljak, director of Hidria, a Slovenian heating, ventilation, and air conditioning company, Feniks is eyeing a contract to build hospitals in Libya that would be awarded next year at the earliest.
“And they even want us to manage them for five years and train the staff,” Seljak said.
Feniks (or the companies themselves) can find the money for such projects through, for instance, the Islamic Development Bank, which has a branch in Sarajevo, or it could exploit the increased interest of Turkish investors in the Balkans.
“We have to find common interests. I don’t believe in love among the former Yugoslav nations, because if it exists, we wouldn’t have gone to war. I believe only in common interests,” Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said at a late-May meeting in Montenegro of more than 100 businesspeople from the countries of the former Yugoslavia. There companies from the other countries of the former Yugoslavia officially joined Feniks, originally a Slovenian-Serbian project.
“And if we have common cultural roots, so it’s a plus,” Seljak said.
According to Seljak, the Feniks’ first projects will be in infrastructure and energy, but cooperation still has far to go.
“Once there’s a concrete project, we’ll think about it, but I’m not an idealist,” Janez Skrabec, head of the medium-sized Slovenian civil engineering company Riko, told me.
His firm avoided the deep domestic crisis because it does most of its business in Russia and Belarus, although as with other small and medium-sized businesses in Slovenia, the share of domestic projects has been increasing as the large construction companies collapse.
The managers thus show the way to the politicians, who otherwise would have difficulty overcoming history, notwithstanding the recent Serbia-Kosovo political agreement.
Perhaps the crisis in Slovenia shows what a deep imprint socialist Yugoslavia has left. Slovenian politicians, for example, still have their doubts about the privatization of state enterprises. They want “strategic partners,” not new owners. Nationality certainly plays a role: government-owned Merkator – the most indebted Slovenian retail chain, with an excellent network throughout the former Yugoslavia – has rejected an offer at least five times from Agrokor, a Croatian retail giant and rival, to take over or enter into the company.
The fear of losing a national champion is big in Ljubljana, especially in light of Croatia’s accession into the European Union on 1 July. Croatia is a larger market and Zagreb is a more natural center of operations for large companies (Unicredit has already said it is moving). And if the Slovenians no longer have the status of exemplary pupils in transition economics and the best businessmen from the ex-Yugoslavia, they have a problem.
That’s also why, at that school at beautiful Lake Bled, where managers from across the region are educated, the initiative Feniks, a miniature former Yugoslavia, arose at the instigation of the Slovenians.
Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU. He recently won the prestigious Writing for Central Europe journalism prize, awarded by the APA – Austria Press Agency in cooperation with Bank Austria.