After landing at Skopje's Alexander the Great airport, passing a statue of the same man, and hitting the motorway, also named after the ancient emperor, first-time visitors to Macedonia are left in little doubt as to who is the country’s national hero.
However, new arrivals might also spot slogans on the billboards located around the airport welcoming them to 'the new business haven in Europe'. According to Zoran Stavreski, the country's minister of finance and deputy prime minister, it does not take much time for newcomers to realise that this is more than just a boast. “Macedonia is a place where one can do business without administrative barriers, where costs are much lower than in other [European] countries, and where the government is business friendly and can assist the investor in every possible field,” he says.
No membership, no problem
Paradoxically, Macedonia’s attractiveness stems from the fact that the country, although a candidate for accession, is not a member of the EU. “Being a candidate implies that we have to achieve all the EU standards in terms of harmonisation of its legislation... so it provides the necessary predictability of the laws and the regulations... but since we are not a member, we can be more flexible when it comes to taxes and incentives,” says Mr Stavreski.
And while the country has had candidate status since 2005, it is not expected to join the EU any time soon, which Mr Stavreski says means investors need not worry about a change in the country's investment incentives. “We are talking about a period of several years before we become a member, and even then there is a transition period. What Macedonia is offering now, Macedonia can offer certainly for the next 10 to 12 years,” he says.
Beyond the capital
Lured by generous incentives and low labour costs, a growing number of foreign companies have been locating their new projects in Macedonia, according investments data monitor fDi Markets. In 2012, defying the global drop in foreign investments, Macedonia attracted the highest number of new crossborder projects since fDi Markets started tracking inflows to the country in 2003.
Most investors launched their projects in sectors such as textiles, transportation and food and tobacco, with manufacturing the dominant business activity. According to Mr Stavreski, aside from these sectors, investment opportunities can also be found in financial services and agro-processing.
The overwhelming majority of investments in Macedonia have been launched in and around capital city Skopje. In 2012 alone, 65% of all projects were located in this region. Mr Stavreski, a native of Ohrid, a city located 170 kilometres south-west of Skopje, says the government is “trying to work with every single investor to convince them that they can invest in parts of the country [outside] the capital.”
For those who remain unconvinced, the government is launching a number of free economic zones and is building infrastructure around them, according to Mr Stavreski. “If the costs of logistics are lower and if there is good infrastructure, there will not be a problem to attract investors to other parts of the country,” he says.