Your statement that Serbia has enough potential to become an “economic wonder” has attracted a lot of attention both from the public and the media. Could you please elaborate on your opinion?
The story of the Serbian economy is, in my eyes, a story of an unfulfilled huge potential. As a true admirer of Serbia, I said it before and I will repeat it over and over again. The potential is in all possible fields: Let’s start with high-tech. You have amazing engineers and skilled people. Your faculties are producing the best experts in many fields - academic, technological, medical, etc. I believe with all my heart that Serbia can become a big European hub for sophisticated industries. If this dream will be fulfilled or not, well that depends not only on external reasons (an idea that many people are in love with) but primarily on you. Every nation navigates its way on the high waves of time by its own will and force.
Regarding agriculture - Serbia can easily turn to the “food basket of Europe”. God blessed you with fertile soil, rivers, great geo-political location and fare climate. All preconditions are there. But still, in dry years, with little rain, you have bad crops. I am not criticizing anyone but describing a gloomy situation which you all know from your backyards. There is no reason that crops should be dependent on rain. The old system of agriculture has bankrupted everywhere. “Smart Agriculture” is the name of the game today. Intensive irrigation, treatment of wastewater, water recycling and modern greenhouses are the alphabet in the new language of agriculture. Israel, as friend of Serbia, can offer you its assistance: knowledge, experience and of course good will.
Israeli investors have already recognized some of these segments, like real estate. Which other segments, of those mentioned, could be appealing to the Israeli investors?
Considering the IT sector, Serbia can be, I think, a superpower. Every visitor in Serbia is immediately impressed by the amazing young generation you have - highly skilled and motivated people who should be the locomotive of the Serbian economy. Unemployment among young educated boys and girls is a tragedy for your future. The sad fact that the salaries in Serbia are relatively low could also be, and I apologize for saying that, another attractive element for foreign investors.
You mentioned real estate. Although we are a small country, we are one of the biggest investors in Serbia. The overall Israeli investment in real estate is estimated more than 1,3 billion Euros. That figure speaks loud for itself: Israeli firms foresee a future rise in the value of nekretnina in your country. Several successful projects have been already realized in Belgrade, and some are still in the pipeline. You all know for sure the ‘Airport City,’ which is one of the most modern office compounds in the capital. Soon new big projects will be implemented in Belgrade: residential area with app 700 flats not far from Tašmajdan, another luxurious project near Kalimegdan Park and a commercial centre in Zemun.
Investors from my country are not only present in the capital. In Novi Sad Israeli investors have recently opened the beautiful Big CEE centre which is the largest retail park in Vojvodina. Another pearl is the Kragujevac Plaza Center which was opened more than a year ago and attracts thousands of visitors daily. The retail park in Pančevo is another example of a smart and sucesfull business initiative.
Only 65 years ago, Israel was all desert and wetland, but, today, it is the first and foremost country in terms of technological innovation, medical accomplishments and other advancements. Could you tell us something about the timeline of such development?
Israel was born out of a dream. The land itself is not reach with minerals and natural assets. It is small, arid and sponged with spiritual and historical memories which are not always a guarantee for economic success. However, since its birth Israel defines its national priorities and sets the course of its economic development which has been independent regardless of political changes. Since first day the fathers of the nation realised that the key for our economic independence is not natural, but human assets. The initiative and entrepreneurship are values that my country encourages.
Therefore the government supports start-ups, forms technological incubators, and provides incentives for foreign hi tech investors in opening of research and development (R&D) facilities. Israel has the highest percentage of GDP invested in R&D among all OECD member states.
Alongside the long-term planning, Israelis have their famous ‘chutzpa’ which is in a way similar to the Serbian ‘inat’. ‘Chutzpa’ can be described as the notion of never accepting no for an answer. Used in a positive way, it calls for creative action which brings about changes, questions the status-quo and praises diversity.
The on-going decision, supported by all of Israel’s governments in the last 65 years, is to invest in R&D, technological sectors, science and to focus on our added values, by considering a challenge as an opportunity.
Israel is on its way to become an energy independent country for the first time ever thanks to gas exploitation in the Mediterranean Sea. How significant is this for your country's economy?
Energy is a top issue for any country, and even more so for Israel due to its specific geopolitical environment. Unfortunately Israel can’t import energy from its neighbours, so we have to be self-sufficient. In this regard, natural gas explorations add to stability of our energy supply and create possibilities for long-term planning in the field of energy. For many years Israel and Israeli entrepreneurs are leading the world with solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies and the combination of these achievements with the new discovery of natural gas is real good news for Israel and its friends in the Mediterranean.
You cooperated with the previous Serbian government on agricultural development. Is the agreement you reached with that government still in place, and what are the plans in this respect?
Israel and the Israeli Embassy in Belgrade cooperate constantly, with every government of Serbia, in order to realise the immense potential that lies in all the mentioned fields.
Agriculture in Serbia was identified by us as one of the leading sectors worth exploring, and the Embassy throughout the years invested a lot of resources in order to create favourable conditions for reaching the desired positive outcome. In Israel we believe in miracles. We turned the arid desert into a blooming field from which we are exporting sweet cherry tomatoes, mangoes, and flowers to every corner on the globe. If it was achieved in Israel, trust me – through implementing Israeli knowledge and experience, Serbia can be a leader in the European agricultural market.
The agreement is still in place. We are in constant contacts with Serbian institutional partners, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, looking for ways to upgrade the existing agreements. Recently, we launched an initiative to start bilateral negotiations between the two Governments on a Free Trade Agreement, which elsewhere proved to be an effective tool for enlarging trade exchange, commerce and great katalizator for attracting Israeli investors.
Can you share with us an example of an Israeli business success story in Serbia?
Luckily, most of the Israeli investments in Serbia turned out to be success stories. One recent, great example is of the company “Veriest” from the hi-tech field which deals with a very specific, chip verification technology. Namely, owner of the company, which has big offices in Tel Aviv, came and fell in love with Serbia. Impressed with the highly educated engineers, he registered a company in Novi Belgrade and currently employs 30 Serbian programmers. His idea and wish, if the business climate will allow, is to hire few hundreds of them.
That is a classic example of a win-win situation. The technology is Israeli; implementers are Serbian, while the products are being sold around the globe. I know that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Once Israelis will get to know the Serbian hi-tech potentials, we will all be on the fast track to success.