Interview: Nikolay Tsenkov, Manager of Municipal Guarantee Fund – Sofia, Bulgaria

Has the economic cooperation between N. Macedonia and Bulgaria increased? After the signing of the Neighborhood Treaty, we expected large-scale investments, infrastructure projects, and open market for trade between N. Macedonia and Bulgaria. Did the process stop or are there any opportunities for evolving the relations, in the spirit of two close and friendly countries?

Bulgaria is among the six largest investors in N. Macedonia, over the last 10 years. Bulgarian business has invested over EUR 800 million in the Macedonian economy. In 2018, the trade turnover between Bulgaria and N. Macedonia reached a record of EUR 730 million. The tourist flow grows as well – as of now we have the highest number of Macedonian tourists visiting Bulgaria last year – about 560,000 people, and vice versa – about 420,000 Bulgarians have visited Macedonia for tourism.

I am convinced the mentioned positive trends will continue to develop at the same direction in the future. This is the goal and purpose of the Bulgarian business and Bulgaria as a country as well. Each one of us has an interest in the economic prosperity of our neighbors. This is valid for both Bulgaria and N. Macedonia as well. Usually the countries in Southeastern Europe are less attractive for business investments.  That is why we should organize and offer an integrated regional market, in order to secure better opportunities for production and trade.

The Neighborhood Treaty is a very good way to resolve any obstacles from the past, which were limiting our business relationships. Now is the time to start with some concrete actions. The creation of adequate infrastructure is a key condition to begin with. In the following years we should work and concentrate on the completion of Transport Corridor Number 8 – the connection between Black Sea Varna and Adriatic Durras. It is necessary as well to create a railway line between Sofia and Skopje. Why not think for an airway between Skopje and the airports along the Bulgarian seaside? The transport corridors are the “blood system” of every regional economy.

How should the business climate be improved, when SME are faced with difficulties in getting finances and entrepreneurs are afraid to take risks in an unpredictable environment, while at the same time both SME and entrepreneurs are being troubled by societal pressure and the possibility of failure?

There is no such concept as risk-free business. The business climate will be improved when their risk begins to yield results.

What is your experience with changes in business regulation? How important is it for companies to be compliant? How important is the public-private dialogue and the input of the business community? What would your recommendations be for the law and policy makers?

The formula is clear – minimizing regulatory regimes and administrative burdens on businesses. In Bulgaria there are 580 administrative structures and about 2000 licensing and permitting regimes. These numbers are scary. On one hand, it is a waste of time for businesses, and on other, it creates preconditions for corruption and vicious practices. Also, some state fees are unreasonably high, and e-government is not progressing at the desired pace. The only thing I can recommend for the Macedonian business is to ask the state to start as soon as possible with these reforms.

Macedonia is still waiting for the start of the EU membership negotiations. How can the Bulgarian experience help us? Is there any interest in Bulgaria to support these steps?

As I mentioned, Bulgaria has an interest in Macedonia’s development and progress. Negotiations will not be easy and will have their price, but I think N. Macedonia’s benefits will undoubtedly be greater. I am convinced that the future of N. Macedonia is in the EU. This position is subsequently maintained by the Bulgarian Government, which is a firm supporter of Macedonia’s European integration. We must not forget that at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in 2018, it was Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Borissov who initiated the Sofia Declaration, by which the EU declared unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans.

I think it is a mistake, and I very much hope that, although the Council of Ministers has failed to decide on the enlargement topic, leaders can do so. I think it will be a really big mistake to delay the start of the negotiations with N. Macedonia and Albania once again, it will destabilize the whole region.

With the hope of opening the EU accession negotiations soon, N. Macedonia will also get the opportunity to participate in pre-accession assistance funds. In what capacity should the funds be utilized and what would this mean for the Macedonian economy?

Our experience shows that there are two areas in which pre-accession assistance funds are good to invest. The first is to build an infrastructure. Asphalt is not edible, but without it, money cannot move and reach needed areas. And the second is quality education and qualification of people. After 4-5 years, the low cost of labor will not be a competitive advantage for Macedonia.

You will be speaking at the upcoming Macedonia2025 Summit that will take place in Skopje on 13-15 November 2019. What would be the main focus of your address? What are your expectations?

I will try to be as specific as possible at the forum by sharing the Bulgarian experience in three areas – business financing opportunities, incentive measures for attracting investors, as well as guarantee financial instruments for sharing credit risk with bank financing.

Although our languages ​​are so close, despite our common history, Macedonian and Bulgarian entrepreneurs do not seem to know each other very well. They do not talk enough. And that, I think, is the most important prerequisite for success in business – people talking and thinking in one direction.

 

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