“There is quite a lot going on, on both the political and economic sides” says Milan Samardzic, Partner at Samardzic Oreski and Grbovic law firm in Belgrade, although he concedes that, in the period leading up to the recent April 2 election (which resulted in the election of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic to President), much work has been put on hold. Indeed, Serbia has gone through two straight years of elections, Samardzic points out, causing the country a more extensive period of inactivity than might otherwise have been expected.
The privatization of the Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade, for instance, which is expected to generate some EUR 400 million for Serbia, has been delayed, though Samardzic expects it to move forward soon, and the Telecom Serbia privatization has “disappeared into the election mists for the time being.”
Still, with the presidential elections over – and a Prime Minister set to be appointed in few months’ time – Samardzic believes things will pick up soon.
And indeed, even against the background of two years of elections, Samardzic emphasizes, business has picked up slightly, especially in the number of transactions, and he reports that “we have been extremely busy in the first half of the year.” Samardzic notes that when the global economic crisis hit in 2008, it didn’t affect Serbia immediately and directly until a couple of years later, so he thinks a similar lag-time may be affecting the recovery, and he expects to see a continued strengthening of the economy in the years to come.
Samardzic rejects the suggestion that Serbia – despite its traditional ties with Russia – is unduly affected by problems in the Russian economy, noting that Russia is a significant trade partner, but plays a much smaller role in in-bound investment into the country. “Russia has been trying to exercise its influence here as anywhere else,” he says, but he does not believe the economic struggles in Russia have a correlative impact in Serbia.
By contrast, he’s enthusiastic about the EU accession process for Serbia, which continues to move forward, with the recent opening of an additional two chapters. “This is of course a very good sign for investors and should result in an increase of foreign investment into the country,” he says.
Samardzic claims that business is good across the board and in all sectors, pointing particularly to private equity & NPLs (both in terms of acquisitions and subsequent maintenance of portfolios), reporting that this is a good time to acquire distressed assets.
Turning to the ongoing saga of the Belgrade Bar (as described by CEE Legal Matters on December 22, 2017, and in the March 2017 issue of the CEE Legal Matters magazine), “things have not calmed down at all” says Samardzic. A Bar assembly was called last month and attended by about 500 lawyers, he reports, though he sighs that “the way the sessions are managed and held is completely against the rules.” Indeed, Samardzic describes “two groups” in the Bar: Those currently in management positions (“and everything they do is done irregularly”), and “now you have this fairly coordinated group on the other side, putting more pressure on the first group.” Despite what Samardzic claims is the growing strength of the second group, “at the end of the day when you have people who won’t put the decisions in the minutes of the assembly meeting and won’t accept majority votes … it’s quite ridiculous even to comment on because it’s so far from what you’d expect from this profession. It’s insulting.”
Samardzic says that he’s “hopeful and optimistic that the Bar elections scheduled for June will result in the current board being voted out … but the question remains whether it will be possible to physically remove them if they contest the results, which is very possible. Which means we may have to go to the Constitutional court again. So I’m optimistic in terms of the actual elections, however I’m not necessarily that optimistic about how this will be put into reality.”
This particular assembly was related to the Board’s attempts to create an ethics committee to review whether the behavior of attorneys is in line with the code of conduct and other regulations of the Bar. “This would be very dangerous” says Samardzic, as it would give the proposed body the power to review the conduct of individual lawyers based on their own interpretations of what is ethical and what is not. As the Board is consistently and admittedly skeptical of “the corporate law firms and lawyers working in them,” he says, giving the Board powers above and beyond the existing disciplinary committee is an invitation for abuse.