Give time to time

Why does the diaspora hesitate to invest?

Boris Vukobrat's biography is the archetype of the "Western Dream" for many Balkans: A child from a multicultural milieu, a young man who left the country because politically misfit, with 200 borrowed Swiss francs, he went to Paris to work in low-wage occupations, studying in parallel. He got employed in a small company which he soon took over and thanks to his business successes in the field of international trade in oil, derivatives and petrochemical products, especially with the countries of the "Eastern bloc", he received the Order of the Legion of Honor. The company in question (‘’Copechim’’), has reached the top of the pyramid of European companies engaged in oil trade under his leadership.

In a time of disintegration of the country and illusions, he founded the Peace and Crisis Management Foundation, and became very active politically in this region, galvanizing the hatred of chauvinists of all colors. At the same time, he financially supported many humanitarian, cultural and educational projects and individuals from these areas.

In 2000, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Colorful in expression, he is not afraid of lyrical vocabulary by revealing his true love - philosophy. It is obvious that he chooses an audience that will understand him - he never courts the masses. Despite his expressed political skills in public appearances, he does not hesitate to criticize the new government for its aberrations and delays in reforms.

In the light of recent events, have you changed your sharp stances on the pace of changes in our country on the path to the ideal of the free market?

I am critical because I think we need to hurry up with the changes. So far, all important matters have been delayed and should be the other way around from now on. But this time, instead of criticism – set out in my interview with ‘’Economist Magazine’’ - I make proposals. International economic relations should be arranged as soon as possible. Negotiations with foreign creditors need to be completed so that we know what exactly is owed and to whom and how it will be repaid. Economic relations with neighbors must be improved. Macroeconomic stability should not only be tied to a stable dinar exchange rate. Privatization needs to be completed, and it needs to be transparent. Legal protection of private property must be improved, which would be a guarantee to both domestic capital and the one coming from the outside. Existing companies need to be restructured. The establishment of new businesses should be helped and the bankruptcy of those who do not make profit should not be prevented. Finally, once the law-making and control-enforcement work is completed, the state should stop interfering where it has no business and begin to deal with its own issues.

About ten years ago, “Copechim”, whose president you are, had an annual turnover of 1 billion US dollars with the then SFRY. These days you have reopened your offices in Belgrade, Zagreb, and Skopje. In planning for the future, do you "look" at the past as a reminder?

I have said many times that there was not much to learn from our past except one important thing: what and how should not be done. If we do not repeat mistakes, we will not have the repeated consequences of those mistakes that are now visible to all. However, not everything from the past is for rejection - there used to be a single internal market, though ideologically monitored and protected by a system of political and customs measures. It functioned somehow and jobs could be made in that market. It's a shame that instead of being transformed into something more modern, it's being cruelly shattered by wars. A new Balkan market, one of the kind and freed of ideology and nationalist resentment, and therefore a factor of stability in the region, would be our ticket to the European Union. Europe itself will need us only with a market that is a challenge for their investors and manufacturers, but also an opportunity for us to become more prosperous and secure, while preserving our characteristics.

You have had little business activity in Serbia for more than two years after October 5th, although a politically engaged businessman would be expected to show faster activation. What are the reasons for this?

I have arrived, assessed opportunities, discussed and negotiated, offered significant projects, suggested how to deal with some debts, and how to get, so to say, cheaper oil. I have shown more than goodwill, lost time aside. But there was no goodwill on the other side. I suppose other businessmen from the diaspora also went through this, if they had not already had special ties with the decision makers. The government changed, new people came in, but the old system continued to function, corrupt and corruptible, xenophobic and distrustful of everything that was coming from the outside and was only open in words. None of my proposals has been accepted and I don't even think they have been considered seriously. No one can cooperate forcefully and unilaterally with one environment. That is why, as Mitterrand would say, I gave time to time. As the system changes, so will I be more invested in an area with whom, I repeat, I would gladly cooperate.

The refurbishment of your Belgrade office coincided with the liberalization of the regime for the import of petroleum products. Was this just randomness, good timing, awareness or something else?

I try not to be accidental in my affairs. Awareness is implied. Questions and assessments come just before the decision. The refurbishment of the Belgrade office is another proof that I want to do business with Serbia and that I hope that this business will soon start on a larger scale, as it should, with respect for the laws, rules and good customs. I'm not asking for privileges, but I certainly don’t want to be blackmailed. Previous refraining from doing business with the former regime and its derivatives, shows clearly enough that I do not accept just any terms or any partners. I have no need for that.

They call you a "man for impossible jobs". Will you be more active and risk-taking in the business of changing the economic climate in this region, or will you be "just another businessman from abroad"?

We can carry out the transition to a market economy if we start from two basic principles that pervade: democracy in economy means democracy in society. Democracy cannot exist without economic liberalism, without a free market and without people who want to be free but also accountable. I am referring to the majority, not to all. Democracy is not just a word and just a form: it is filled with live content that changes according to some basic rules. Not by changing the parties in power, but by changing the programs by which political parties come to power and which have to show results in order to stay in power for another term. If anyone needs me, if anyone thinks I can help with this inevitable job of democratizing both the economy and society, I’ll be waiting, of course. But I won't impose myself.

You are very much engaged in awarding scholarships to young people in the natural sciences and mathematics. Are you planning similar projects for young businessmen and managers - people with a business profile that is most needed by Serbia at the moment?

We have given scholarships to many of our young people without any conditions other than the usual ones: to be good students. And one special demand: to put their knowledge at the disposal of their homeland after graduation. If someone wants them to stay abroad, they are forgiven. What is roughly called "brain drain" is a process with long-term repercussions which can become irreversible and which will, in any case, cause significant damage. Both the state and organizations and political parties and individuals should do everything in their power - and it’s not that one can do nothing - to prevent it and to persuade the young and capable ones to stay there where they can create a more efficient and modern state and a more liberal society. But apart from nicely worded phrases on the subject, I do not notice any broader action. In the meantime, our scholarships will also help someone.

What comparative advantages do we have today and in the future, as individuals and as a market as a whole, compared to other regions and countries? And do we even have them?

We have one advantage: it is the working capacity of our people. It is, to me, an undeniable quality which needs to be used adequately. How to use it, how to penetrate the European and world division of labor? This is where begins the role of those who know how things are in their country but who also know how things are in the world and in the capitals of the capital. Without understanding this, we cannot move out of place, no matter how much was said and promised. We will produce what we can and in the way we can and will seek, as soon as possible, a way to enter the world under the best possible conditions. My experience should be used for this purpose, as well as the experience of many others who, by their name and their knowledge of the conditions at the world banks, will make the capital and its managers interested in our products. If a foreign partner shows interest in your products, then you will become interested in investing in what suits him. We have what to produce, what to offer to others, what to exchange.

Finally, what advice do you have for those starting a business career today in Serbia - a new, young class of managers and entrepreneurs? In what direction do you believe that the Serbian economy will develop structurally?

Without peace, order and work there is no progress, no better life. Peace means that we will solve problems without war, through negotiations and patiently aligning our interests, signing well-considered treaties and sticking to what has been signed. Order does not mean the imposition of other people's will and violence, but the establishment of consensus among us, the agreement of the interested and equal parties. All this is impossible without work, a daily and persistent work of people who have realized that they were poor and that only through work they could escape from poverty and live easier and more worthy than before. When this is understood by every individual who wishes well to himself and to others, the opportunities will begin to change. If this understanding is not universal, there will be no change for the better or individual great successes.

E-MAGAZINE – June 2003
By: Dušan Korunoški, Dejan Nikolić