Keynote address at 2019 NALED Annual Meeting

Prime Minister Brnabic, Ministers, President Novaković, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to start by thanking Violeta Jovanovic and the team at NALED for the opportunity to address this distinguished group one last time.

NALED is dear to me because it is an excellent example of the impact from the U.S.-Serbia partnership.  As many of you may know, NALED was founded with the support of USAID.  NALED is unique in the various organizations dedicated to improving Serbia’s business climate because of its tripartite structure, including businesses, local governments, and civil society organizations.  As a result, it has a unique perspective, but also an incredibly powerful voice on a variety of key concerns, including reforms to combat the shadow economy, improving the capacity of public administration and local governments in providing support to businesses, and making sure all are pulling in the same direction toward greater competitiveness and toward EU accession.

During my time as Ambassador, I have seen first-hand the impact of NALED’s work on the Serbian economy.  As a result of your efforts, reforms have been adopted that are making the Serbian economy more attractive for both foreign and domestic investment.

This is a region governed by pessimism.  But as I look back on my three and half years in Serbia, I am convinced there are plenty of reasons for optimism too.  After undertaking difficult but necessary fiscal reforms, the Serbian economy is growing at over 3% a year.  Public debt and unemployment are declining.  Inflation and the foreign exchange rate are stable.  This year, Serbia was again on the top of the Financial Times’ list for attracting foreign direct investment.  Improvements in the business environment, in turn, are providing higher paying jobs and more reasons to stay, rather than leave.

You in NALED have played an important role in these successes.  We partnered with you to encourage consumer awareness of the importance of demanding a fiscal receipt to reduce tax fraud.  As a result, over 11 million receipts were sent in as part of the innovative “Get a receipt to win” program.  More than 100 other measures recommended by NALED to reduce the gray economy have been adopted as well.

We worked with you to press for improvements in e-governance.  The introduction of electronic building permits helped Serbia jump up to 43rd on the World Bank “Doing Business List, .” and permits can take as little as six days now.  Eight cities in Serbia have received NALED’s “business friendly” certification, which serves as a powerful reaffirmation of their dedication – and helps them attract additional investment.  I’ve been inspired by your commitment to etno-mreza and its work to support traditional handicrafts that provide employment opportunities in rural areas.  By investing in the people of Serbia, you are strengthening this country’s most important resource, something far more valuable than its copper, lithium, or timber.  U.S. companies who invest in Serbia report back to us that doing business here is a positive experience, largely because of the smart, talented workforce.  And your organization has served as a talent pool for this government as well, with two of your alumni now holding leading positions in the cabinet.

On this anniversary, however, NALED cannot sit back in admiration of its past successes.  You have many challenges ahead.  We need closer cooperation between local authorities, the central government, and the business sector to ensure that the inspection regime works for all.  To unlock faster economic growth, Serbia needs to continue efforts to resolve state-owned enterprises and make more space for small and medium-sized enterprises.  There is a need for greater effort to improve the independence and efficiency of the judiciary, further steps to check corruption, and a continuing need to improve government administration.

These reforms would help grow the job market, boost wages, and leave a stronger Serbian economy for future generations.  They are not easy.  But they are necessary.  Rest assured that we will continue to work with NALED in support of this agenda.  Congratulations, NALED, on all that you have achieved.  I wish you continued success in the years to come.