Serbia’s investment climate has modestly improved in recent years, driven by macroeconomic reforms, financial stability, and fiscal discipline. Attracting foreign investment is an important priority for the government. In 2020, Serbia improved four places to number 44 on the World Bank’s Doing Business index. Serbia launched a new 30-month Policy Coordination Instrument (PCI) with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in June 2021. U.S. investors in Serbia are generally positive due to the country’s strategic location, well-educated and English-speaking labor force, competitive labor costs, generous investment incentives, and free-trade arrangements with the EU and other key markets. U.S. investors generally enjoy a level playing field. The U.S. Embassy in Belgrade often assists investors when issues arise, and Serbian leaders are responsive to investment concerns. In 2021, the United States and Serbia signed a new Investment Incentive Agreement that may facilitate opportunities in a variety of sectors. Challenges remain, particularly bureaucratic delays and corruption, as well as loss-making state-owned enterprises (SOEs), a large informal economy, and an inefficient judiciary. Political influence on the economy is also a concern; this issue was highlighted in January 2022 when the government abruptly withdrew licenses related to a major proposed lithium-mining project in response to public protests.
The Serbian government has identified economic growth and job creation as top priorities and has passed significant reforms to labor law, construction permitting, inspections, public procurement, and privatization that have helped improve the business environment. If the government delivers on promised reforms during its EU accession process, business opportunities should continue to grow. Sectors that stand to benefit include agriculture and agro-processing, solid-waste management, sewage, environmental protection, information and communications technology (ICT), renewable energy, health care, mining, and manufacturing. In April 2021, Serbia adopted its first renewable energy law, which should contribute to scaling up renewable energy capacities. Companies and officials have noted that the adoption of reforms has sometimes outpaced implementation. Digitizing certain government functions (e.g., construction permitting, tax administration, and e-signatures) has not yet brought a dramatic improvement in processing times and may not be consistently implemented. The government is slowly making progress on resolving troubled SOEs, through bankruptcy or privatization actions where possible. The government plans to privatize 64 more companies and is also slowly reducing Serbia’s bloated public-sector workforce, mainly through attrition and hiring caps.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022 initially had a limited economic impact on Serbia, and the banking system remains well capitalized and liquid; but inflation, as well as energy and agricultural supply disruptions are likely if the war continues, despite Serbia’s refusal to join U.S. and EU sanctions on Russian entities. Public fear of price spikes and shortages initially led to sporadic panic buying at supermarkets and gas pumps, but fuel and other consumer goods have remained available. Russia continues to supply natural gas and crude oil to Serbia, but supplies are vulnerable due to heavy Russian influence in the sector and the potential effect of sanctions. Serbia’s trade with Russia is otherwise limited, but agricultural exports could suffer from contraction or loss of the Russian market due to sanctions and resulting financial and logistical barriers.
|TI Corruption Perceptions Index||2021||96 of 180||https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2021/index/srb|
|Global Innovation Index||2021||54 of 132||https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator|
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M, historical stock positions)||2019||$149 million||https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/|
|World Bank GNI per capita||2020||$7,420||https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD|
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Attracting FDI is a priority for the Serbian government. The Law on Investments extends national treatment to foreign investors and prohibits discriminatory practices against them. The Law also allows the repatriation of profits and dividends, provides guarantees against expropriation, allows waivers of customs duty for equipment imported as capital in-kind, and enables foreign investors to qualify for government incentives.
The government’s investment-promotion authority is the Development Agency of Serbia (Razvojna agencija Srbije – RAS: ). RAS offers a wide range of services, including support of direct investments, export promotion, and coordinating the implementation of investment projects. RAS serves as a one-stop-shop for both domestic and international companies. The government maintains a dialogue with businesses through associations such as the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, American Chamber of Commerce in Serbia, Foreign Investors’ Council (FIC), and Serbian Association of Managers (SAM). Serbia has attracted over $39 billion of foreign direct investment since 2007, according to RAS. Serbia’s strong FDI track-record is substantiated by international awards. The country was ranked at the top of the Financial Times’ FDI 2019 Europe list, based on the criteria of Greenfield investments relative to the size of economy (Financial Times, fDi Report 2020). Serbia was ranked first globally for the fourth consecutive year for creating the most FDI-related jobs per million inhabitants, according to “IBM Global Location Trends 2020”.
The government prompted concerns about its commitment to the protection of foreign investors’ rights in 2022 when it halted a lithium-borate mining project which promised to become the country’s largest-ever foreign direct investment. In July 2021, multinational mining firm Rio Tinto committed $2.4 billion to developing a mine and processing plant at the Jadar deposit in western Serbia, which could potentially supply up to 10% of global lithium demand. However, the project became a lightning rod for criticism by environmental activists, resulting in months of public protests targeting Rio Tinto in period prior to Serbia’s national elections in April 2022. The government reacted by first delaying additional permits and then, in January 2022, withdrawing the spatial plan and revoking existing licenses for the project’s development.
Foreign and domestic private entities have the right to establish and own businesses and to engage in all forms of remunerative activity. Serbia has no investment screening or approval mechanisms for inbound foreign investment. U.S. investors are not disadvantaged or singled out by any rules or regulations.
For some business activities, licenses are required (e.g., financial institutions must be licensed by the National Bank of Serbia prior to registration). Licensing limitations apply to both domestic and foreign companies active in finance, energy, mining, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, tobacco, arms and military equipment, road transportation, customs processing, land development, electronic communications, auditing, waste management, and production and trade of hazardous chemicals.
Serbian citizens and foreign investors enjoy full private-property ownership rights. Private entities can freely establish, acquire, and dispose of interests in business enterprises. By law, private companies compete equally with public enterprises in the market and for access to credit, supplies, licenses, and other aspects of doing business.
Food and Agriculture: Foreign citizens and foreign companies are prohibited from owning agricultural land in Serbia. However, foreign ownership restrictions on farmland do not apply to companies registered in Serbia, even if the company is foreign-owned. Unofficial estimates suggest that Serbian subsidiaries of foreign companies own some 20,000 hectares of farmland in the country. EU citizens are exempt from this ban, although they may buy up to two hectares of agricultural land under certain conditions: they must permanently reside in the municipality where the land is located for at least 10 years, practice farming on the land in question for at least three years, and own adequate agriculture machinery and equipment.
Defense: The Law on Investments adopted in 2015 ended discriminatory practices that prevented foreign companies from establishing companies in the production and trade of arms (for example, the defense industry) or in specific areas of the country. Further liberalization of investment in the defense industry continued via a new Law on the Production and Trade of Arms and Ammunition, adopted in May 2018. The law enables total foreign ownership of up to 49% in seven SOEs, collectively referred to as the “Defense Industry of Serbia,” so long as no single foreign shareholder exceeds 15% ownership. The law also cancels limitations on foreign ownership for arms and ammunition manufacturers.
Serbia has not undergone any third-party investment policy reviews in the past five years.
The following is a sample of articles that have appeared in 2021 and early 2022 providing reviews of concerns related to investment policy.
In addition, the Environmental Justice Atlas ( ) listed several investments that resulted or could result in environmental degradation in Serbia, including investments in the city of Pancevo, relocation of Vreoci village in the Kolubara coal basin, the highway that killed a 600-year-old oak tree, pollution of Veliki Backi channel, municipal waste in the city of Kraljevo, the potential impact of the planned Buk Bjela hydropower plant on Tara River canyon, and remediation of Palic lake.
According to the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business report, seven procedures and seven days are required to establish a foreign-owned limited liability company in Serbia. This is fewer days but more procedures than the average for Europe and Central Asia. In addition to the procedures required of a domestic company, a foreign parent company establishing a subsidiary in Serbia must translate its corporate documents into Serbian.
Under the Business Registration Law, the Serbian Business Registers Agency (SBRA) oversees company registration. SBRA’s website (in Serbian) is . All entities applying for incorporation with SBRA can use a single application form and are not required to have signatures notarized.
Companies in Serbia can open and maintain bank accounts in foreign currency, although they must also have an account in Serbian dinars (RSD). The minimum capital requirement is symbolic at RSD 100 (less than $1) for limited liability companies, rising to RSD 3 million (approximately $29,900) for a joint stock company. Some foreign companies have difficulties opening bank accounts due to a provision in the Law on Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing that requires companies to disclose their ultimate owner. A single-window registration process enables companies that register with SBRA to obtain a tax-registration number (poreski identifikacioni broj – PIB) and health-insurance number with registration. In addition, companies must register employees with the Pension Fund at the Fund’s premises. Since December 2017, the Labor Law requires employers to register new employees before their first day at work; previously, the deadline was registration within 15 days of employment. These amendments represent an attempt by the government to decrease the gray labor market by empowering labor inspectors to penalize employers if they find unregistered workers.
Pursuant to the Law on Accounting, companies in Serbia are classified as micro, small, medium, and large, depending on the number of employees, operating revenues, and value of assets.
The Development Agency of Serbia supports direct investment and promotes exports. It also implements projects aimed at improving competitiveness, supporting economic development, and supporting small-and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs. More information is available at .
Serbia’s business-facilitation mechanisms provide for equitable treatment of both men and women when a registering company, according to the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Index. The government declared 2017-2027 a “Decade of Entrepreneurship” with special programs to support women’s entrepreneurship. Since 2017, the government has provided approximately $1 million annually in grants to support women’s innovative entrepreneurship.
The Serbian government neither promotes nor restricts outward direct investment. Restrictions on short-term capital transactions (i.e., portfolio investments) were lifted in April 2018 through amendments to the Law on Foreign Exchange Operations for short-term securities issued or purchased by EU countries and international financial institutions. Prior to this, residents of Serbia were not allowed to purchase foreign short-term securities, and foreigners were not allowed to purchase short-term securities in Serbia. There are no restrictions on payments related to long-term securities.
Capital markets are not fully liberalized for individuals. Citizens of Serbia are not allowed to keep accounts abroad except in exceptional situations (such as work or study abroad) listed in the Law on Foreign Exchange Operations.
3. Legal Regime
The harmonization of Serbian with EU law in accordance with the EU’s acquis communautaire has created a more favorable legal environment; however, Serbia still needs to address problems with transparency in the development, adoption, and implementation of regulations.
International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) are required for publicly listed companies and financial institutions, as well as for the following large legal entities, regardless of whether their securities trade in a public market: insurance companies, financial leasing lessors, voluntary pension funds and their management companies, investment funds and their management companies, stock exchanges, securities brokerages, and factoring companies. Additionally, IFRS standards are required for all foreign companies whose securities trade on any public market.
On January 1, 2021, Serbia introduced environmental, social, and governance disclosure (non-financial reporting) with the new Law on Accounting (Article 37), which obliges all companies with over 500 employees in Serbia to publish non-financial reports.
There are no informal regulatory processes managed by NGOs or the private sector.
The Law on Ultimate Beneficial Owners Central Registry (2018) introduced a single, public, online database maintained by the Serbian Business Registers Agency (www.apr.gov.rs), which contains information on natural persons who are ultimate beneficial owners of the companies.
Nationally, there are 37 different inspectorates operating within 12 different ministries that do not significantly cooperate or coordinate with one another, despite the existence of the Coordination Commission for Inspection Supervision. The administrative court is the legal entity that considers appeals on inspection decisions.
Serbia is not a member of the World Trade Organization or the EU. Serbia became an EU candidate country and opened formal accession negotiations in 2012. Details on EU-Serbia relations and the status of Serbia’s accession process are available through the EU Delegation to Serbia at . The WTO accepted Serbia’s application for accession on February 15, 2005, and Serbia currently has observer status.
Serbia has a civil law system. The National Assembly codifies laws. The courts have sole authority to interpret legislation, with the exception of so-called “authentic interpretation” which is reserved for the legislature. According to the Constitution, Serbia’s judicial system is legally independent of the executive branch; but in practice, significant obstacles prevent judicial independence.
Serbia’s judicial system distinguishes between commercial courts and courts of general jurisdiction. Commercial courts adjudicate commercial matters, including disputes involving business organizations, business contracts, foreign investment, foreign trade, maritime law, aeronautical law, bankruptcy, civil economic offenses, intellectual property rights, and misdemeanors committed by commercial legal entities. When only one of the parties is a business and the other is not, the courts of general civil jurisdiction decide the dispute. The Appellate Commercial Court rules on appeals of commercial courts’ decisions. The average waiting time to bring a case to trial in the Commercial Courts is high. Case processing time for commercial litigation is in line with EU averages, but the law is inconsistently applied.
In general, contract enforcement is weak, and the courts responsible for enforcing property rights are overburdened. Under Serbian commercial law, the Law on Obligations regulates contractual relations (also known as the Law on Contracts and Torts). Civil Procedure Law governs contract-related disputes. Serbian law need not be the governing law of a contract entered into in Serbia. The Law on Resolution of Disputes with the Regulations of Other Countries, as well as bilateral agreements, regulates procedures for recognition of foreign court decisions.
Significant laws for investment, business activities, and foreign companies in Serbia include: the Law on Investments, the Law on Foreign Trade, the Law on Foreign Exchange Operations, the Law on Markets of Securities and other Financial Instruments, the Law on Registration of Commercial Entities, the Law on Banks and Other Financial Institutions, the Law on Construction and Planning, the Company Law, the Law on Financial Leasing, the Law on Concessions, and Regulations on Conditions for Establishing and Operation of Foreign Representative Offices in Serbia. Other relevant laws include: the Law on Value Added Tax, the Law on Income Tax, the Law on Corporate Profit Tax, the Law on Real Estate Tax, and the Law on Mandatory Social Contributions. Laws and regulations on portfolio investments are on the Securities Commission’s website at Laws and regulations related to payment operations can be found on the National Bank of Serbia’s website at .
Serbia lacks a primary or “one-stop-shop” website for investment that provides relevant laws, rules, procedures, and reporting requirements for investors. However, numerous Serbian firms that provide legal and other professional services publish comprehensive information for foreign investors, including .
The Commission for the Protection of Competition is responsible for competition-related concerns and in principle implements the law as an independent agency reporting directly to the National Assembly. In some cases, companies have reported perceptions that political factors have influenced the Commission’s decision-making. Annual reports of the Commission’s actions are published online at . Laws and regulations related to market competition are available at .
A foreign investor is guaranteed national treatment, which means that any legal entity or natural person investing in Serbia enjoys full legal security and protection equal to those of local entities. A stake held by a foreign investor or a company with a foreign investment cannot be the subject of expropriation. The contribution of a foreign investor may be in the form of convertible foreign currency, contribution in kind, intellectual property rights, and securities.
Serbia’s Law on Expropriation authorizes expropriations that have been determined to be in the public interest and for a compensation in the form of similar property or cash approximating the current market value of the expropriated property. The local municipal court is authorized to intervene and decide the level of compensation if there is no mutually agreed resolution within two months of the expropriation order. The Law on Investment provides safeguards against arbitrary government expropriation of investments. There have been no cases of expropriation of foreign investments in Serbia since the dissolution of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 2003. There are, however, outstanding claims against Serbia related to property nationalized under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was dissolved in 1992.
The 2014 Law on Restitution of Property and Compensation applies to property seized by the government since March 9, 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, and includes special coverage for victims of the Holocaust, who are authorized to reclaim property confiscated by Nazi occupation forces. Heirless property left by victims of the Holocaust is subject to a separate law, which was approved in February 2016. The deadline for filing restitution applications was March 1, 2014. The Agency for Restitution received 75,414 property claims, and the adjudication process is still ongoing. Information about the Agency for Restitution, restitution procedures and the status of cases is available on its website at .
Serbia’s bankruptcy law is consistent with international standards. According to the Bankruptcy Law, its goal is to provide compensation to creditors via the sale of the assets of a debtor company. The law stipulates automatic bankruptcy for legal entities whose accounts have been blocked for more than three years, and it allows debtors and creditors to initiate bankruptcy proceedings. The law ensures a faster and more equitable settlement of creditors’ claims, lowers costs, and clarifies rules regarding the role of bankruptcy trustees and creditors’ councils.
Foreign creditors have the same rights as Serbian creditors with respect to initiating or participating in bankruptcy proceedings. Claims in foreign currency are calculated in dinars at the dinar exchange rate on the date the bankruptcy proceeding commenced. Serbia’s Criminal Code criminalizes intentionally causing bankruptcy, as well as fraud in relation to a bankruptcy proceeding. The index ranked Serbia 41 out of 190 economies with regards to resolving insolvency, with an average time of two years needed to resolve insolvency and average cost of 20% of the estate. The recovery rate was estimated at 34.5 cents on the dollar.
4. Industrial Policies
The 2015 Law on Investment defines Serbia’s investment incentives program. Incentives are available to both domestic and foreign investors. The law established a Council for Economic Development and the Development Agency of Serbia (RAS). The Council has oversight responsibility for the investment incentives program, while RAS plays a more operational role.
The level of available subsidies for investment projects is determined under the Decree on Defining Conditions for Approving Incentives in Attracting Direct Investments, approved for the current year in January 2019. Investors are obliged to provide 25% of eligible costs from their own resources. For investment projects valued at €50-100 million, subsidies are limited to 25% of the total investment, falling to 17% for projects over €100 million. Under certain conditions, large companies can gain support for up to 50% of eligible costs for investment projects, medium-sized companies up to 60%, and small companies up to 70%.
The Decree provides funds for investment projects in manufacturing and customer service centers. For manufacturing investments, state subsidies are available for any company that invests the equivalent of €100,000 and employs at least 10 persons in a “devastated area.” For service center investments, subsidies are available for companies investing the equivalent of €150,000 and creating at least 15 new jobs anywhere in the country. The required minimum investment and employment levels for subsidies increase on a sliding scale according to the level of development of the investment location. For each project in a devastated area, the state will pay the investor 40% of the eligible gross salary costs for newly employed people in the two-year period after reaching employment commitments, up to the equivalent of €7,000 per new job; the subsidy declines to 20% of eligible costs up to €3,000 per job in the most developed regions. For labor-intensive projects that create more than 200 new jobs, the government can approve additional incentives. The state will also provide subsidies for the purchase of fixed assets, again on a sliding scale based on the level of development at the investment location. The subsidy reaches 30% of eligible asset costs in a devastated area and declines to 10% in the most developed areas of Serbia. The total amount of subsidies granted cannot exceed the amount allowed under Serbia’s EU-compliant state aid regulations. The government may sell land for construction at a below-market price in support of an investment project of national importance.
There is a separate Decree on Defining Conditions for Approving Incentives in Attracting Direct Investments in Production of Food Products also approved in January 2019 with almost identical conditions to those mentioned above. The only difference is that state subsidies are available for any company that invests the equivalent of the minimum €2 million and employs at least 30 new employees regardless of the level of the municipality development. For projects investing over €20 million in the fixed assets, the government will approve additional incentives.
The government also approved a Decree on Conditions and Methods of Attracting Direct Investments in the Hotel Accommodation Service Sector (2019, amended February 2022), making similar state subsidies available for any company that invests a minimum of €2 million equivalent and employs at least 30 new employees in the sector. For investment projects valued at up to €30 million, subsidies are limited to 20% of the of the eligible costs of investment in fixed assets, falling to 10% for projects over €30 million. Details on all three decrees are available at: and .
In May 2021, the government approved a Decree on Defining Conditions for Approving Incentives in Attracting Direct Investments in the Automation of Existing Capacities in the Food Processing Industry. The decree aims to improve the productivity of beneficiaries, increasing the number of domestic subcontractors and increasing the use of raw materials of domestic origin. The measure prescribes almost identical conditions to those of the decree for the hotel sector, with the difference that state subsidies are available for the investment projects in food processing automation equivalent to a minimum of €1 million.
Expanding the focus on automation, in February 2022, the government approved a Decree on Defining Conditions for Approving Incentives in Attracting Direct Investments in the Automation of Existing Capacities and Innovation, targeting high added value industries. Under this measure, funds can be allocated for the implementation of investment projects for automation and/or introduction of innovation equivalent to a minimum of €5 million. The Decree lists high value-added industries as follows:
- chemicals and chemical products;
- basic pharmaceutical products and medications;
- electrical equipment;
- computers, electronic, and optical products;
- unmentioned machines and unmentioned equipment;
- motor vehicles, trailers, and semi-trailers;
- production of other means of transport; and
- rubber and plastic products.
In addition to 25% of eligible costs in tangible and intangible assets for investments in automation, the beneficiary is eligible for an additional 5% of eligible costs of investment in tangible and intangible assets if the project forms a supply chain, and for an additional 5% of eligible costs if the project develops a new final product with a high degree of production complexity.
The Decrees on Attracting Direct Investments also establish criteria for granting local incentives to investments of importance for local development.
At the provincial level, the government of the Vojvodina region offers investment incentives similar to those described above. The main difference is that the program is implemented by the Development Agency of Vojvodina, which was established in February 2017 as the successor to the Vojvodina Investment Promotion Agency (VIP) ( ).
Local municipalities may sell land for construction at below-market rates for investments that promote local economic development. Other major incentives at the local level include exemptions or deductions on land-related fees and other local fees.
Serbia’s tax laws offer several incentives to new investors. The corporate profit tax rate is a flat 15%, one of the lowest in the region. Non-resident investors are taxed only on income earned in Serbia. A ten-year tax holiday on corporate profits is available for investors who hire more than 100 workers and invest more than RSD 1 billion ($10 million). The tax holiday begins once the company starts making a profit.
According to the December 2021 Decree on Film Incentives, both domestic and foreign filmmakers are eligible to apply for a refund of 25% of qualifying costs. For film projects over €5 million, the government offers a refund of up to 30% of qualifying costs. The 2022 budget for film incentives is $15.7 million.
Employment incentives allow payroll tax deductions for persons registered with the National Employment Service for at least six months continuously. The incentives currently in place are valid from the moment of employment until December 31, 2022:
1-9 new jobs: 65% deduction
10-99 new jobs: 70% deduction
100+ new jobs: 75% deduction
The Serbian Innovation Fund provides various granting opportunities for young entrepreneurs and start-ups, including mini grants for development of technological innovation, matching grants for commercialization of research and development, and a collaborative grant scheme for joint R&D projects creating new products and services. These grants are mainly available for companies established in Serbia with majority private Serbian ownership.
Some subsidized loans for start-ups, entrepreneurs, and SMEs are available through the state-owned Fund for Development and various ministries, and part are issued through the Development Agency of Serbia. Detailed information is available at (Serbian only). These loans are available to foreign-owned companies registered in Serbia, provided the Serbian registered company has not recorded losses in the previous two years.
The government guarantees or jointly finances foreign direct commercial investment projects. The government participates as a minority partner in financed infrastructure projects.
Serbia adopted its first renewable energy law as part of the reform of its energy-sector legal framework in April 2021. This was a significant advance in meeting EU accession requirements related to renewable energy and should contribute to scaling up renewable-sourced capacities. The Law on the Use of Renewable Energy Sources enables a shift from the previous feed-in-tariff scheme to a market-based support scheme envisaging feed-in premiums (FiP) obtained on auctions based on quotas for projects above 500 kW and 3 MW for wind. Feed-in tariffs will remain for small projects; however, their amount will be determined at auctions. The implementation details are expected to be elaborated in secondary legislation. The guaranteed supplier is responsible for balancing costs until a liquid intraday market is established. Once the regulator announces that the intraday market is liquid, renewable-energy producers with plants above 500 kW capacity (above 3 MW for wind) will have responsibility for balancing costs in accordance with the relevant legislation.
In November 2021, the government prescribed a 400 MW quota in the market premium system for wind farms of 3 MW and above. Based on this decree and prescribed methodologies, later that month the Serbian Energy Regulatory Agency (AERS) set a maximum purchase price in auctions for electricity produced from wind farms with an approved capacity of 3 MW and above at 5.57 euro cents/kWh. Although the first auction was expected to occur at the begging of 2022, it is still pending. Most secondary legislation is pending.
The new legislation also introduced the so-called prosumer concept or self-consumption (consumers that generate their own energy), including jointly acting self-consumption and energy communities. In August 2021, Serbia adopted a decree on self-consumption, enabling a net-metering scheme for households or housing communities and a net billing scheme for all other self-consumers. In September 2021, the Ministry of Mining and Energy published a call for the program to subsidize households to install solar panels and become self-consumers.
Serbia maintains 15 designated customs-free zones: in Apatin, Belgrade, two zones in Kragujevac, Krusevac, Novi Sad, Pirot, Priboj, Sabac, Smederevo, Svilajnac, Subotica, Uzice, Vranje, and Zrenjanin. The zones, established under the 2006 Law on Free Zones, are intended to attract investment by providing tax-free areas for company operations. Businesses operating in the zones qualify for benefits including unlimited duty-free imports and exports, preferential customs treatment, and tax relief in the form of value-added tax exclusions. Companies operating within a customs-free zone are subject to the same laws and regulations as other businesses in Serbia except for their tax privileges. Goods entering or leaving the zones must be reported to customs authorities, and payments must be made in accordance with regulations on hard-currency payments. Goods delivered from customs-free zones into other areas of Serbia are subject to customs duties and tax unless they contain a minimum of 50% Serbian inputs. Earnings and revenues generated within customs-free zones may be transferred freely to any country, including Serbia, without prior approval, and are not subject to taxes, duties, or fees.
In 2020 (the most recent year for which complete information is available), there were a total of 215 companies operating in Serbia’s free economic zones, of which 173 were domestically owned and 42 foreign-owned. The number of companies increased by 11 or by 5% compared to 2019. The companies employed a total of 40,031 workers, an increase of 6% compared to 2019. Total exports from free zones exceeded $2 billion in 2020, approximately 12% of Serbia’s total exports. Total imports into the zones were approximately $1.4 billion, or 5% of total imports. Total annual turnover in the free zones in 2020 stood at some $4.3 billion, a 14% drop compared to 2019, mostly due to the impact of COVID-19. The largest drop came in the Kragujevac zone, where total turnover fell by 30% year-on-year, mostly due to production cuts at the Fiat auto manufacturing plant. Free trade zone Subotica became the leader in turnover, accounting for 20% of overall turnover of free trade zones. Many companies operating in free zones are producers of automobile parts and other industrial goods, including large multinationals like Fiat, Michelin, Tigar Tyres, Ametek, DAD Draxlmaier Automotive, Mei Ta Europe, Sevojno Copper Mill, Continental, Yazaki, Lear, PKC, Siemens, Swarovski, and Panasonic.
The Serbian government does not mandate local employment or have onerous visa, residence, or work permitting requirements for foreign nationals. It does not impose conditions for foreign investors to receive permission to invest.
The government has no policy of forced localization to oblige foreign investors to use domestic content in goods or technology. Similarly, the government does not force foreign investors to establish or maintain a specified amount of data storage within the country. There are no requirements for foreign IT providers to turn over source code or provide access to encryption.
With the Data Protection Law passed in November 2018, Serbia has implemented the requirements of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The law entered into force in 2019 after a nine-month transition period. Some experts have criticized the law as unclear, citing provisions transcribed from EU law that include mechanisms that do not yet exist in Serbia’s domestic legal system, which leads to questions regarding the law’s implementation. Other experts have argued that with the law, Serbia has enacted a high personal data-protection standard, and that defects will be resolved over time.
The Decree on Conditions for Approving Incentives in Attracting Direct Investments defines conditions and limitations for investment incentives, such as maintaining investments at a specified location for up to five years. Investors are obliged to maintain newly engaged employees for up to five years. Potential investors who want to use state grants must provide a minimum of 25% of eligible costs from their own resources. The deadline for implementation of investment projects and the creation of new workplaces is three years from the date of applying for state grants. This deadline may be extended for up to five years based on a written justification. Beneficiaries are obliged to provide a bank guarantee as security for the eventual return of received funds. In case of non-fulfilment of the conditions provided for in the state grant contract, the Ministry of Economy and the Council for Economic Development may decide to terminate the contract at any time; however, authorities have generally shown flexibility in favor of investors. Conditions are applied equally to both domestic and foreign investors.
5. Protection of Property Rights
Serbia has an adequate body of laws for the protection of property rights, but enforcement through the judicial system can be very slow. A multitude of factors can complicate property titles: restitution claims, unlicensed and illegal construction, limitation of property rights to rights of use, outright title fraud, and other issues. Investors are cautioned to investigate all property title issues on land intended for investment projects.
During the country’s socialist years, owners of nationalized land became users of the land and acquired rights of use that, until 2003, could not be freely sold or transferred. In 2015, the government adopted a law that allows for property usage rights to be converted into ownership rights with payment of a market-based fee. In 2015, the government implemented new amendments to the Law on Planning and Construction that separated the issuance of permits from conversion issues. These amendments cut the administrative deadline for issuing construction permits for a potential investor to 30 days and introduced a one-stop shop for electronic construction permits.
Serbia’s real-property registration system is based on a municipal cadaster and land books. Serbia has the basis for an organized real-estate cadaster and property-title system. However, legalizing tens of thousands of structures built over the past twenty years without proper licenses is an enormous challenge, as an estimated two million buildings in the country are not registered in the cadaster, of which almost half are residential properties. According to some estimates, one-third of buildings were not built in accordance with legal requirements. In 2015, the government adopted a new Law on Legalization, which simplified the registration process. Since then, however, only slightly more than 230,000 decisions on legalization have been issued. The deadline set by the law for legalization of all buildings constructed without proper permits is November 2023.
Serbia is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and party to all major WIPO treaties, including the Berne Convention, the Paris Convention, the Patent Cooperation Treaty, the WIPO Copyright Treaty, and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty. While Serbia is not a member of the WTO, the Serbian government has taken steps to adhere to the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Serbia’s IPR laws include TRIPS-compliant provisions and are enforced by courts and administrative authorities.
Serbia’s IPR legislation is modern and compliant with both EU and international standards. According to the EU’s 2021 Progress Report, Serbia has a good level of preparation in the area of IPR to align with the EU acquis.
Procedures for registration of industrial property rights and deposit of works and authorship with the Serbian Intellectual Property Office are straightforward and similar to procedures in most European countries. Relevant information is available at: .
Enforcement of IPR remains haphazard but is roughly consistent with levels in neighboring countries. The government has a Permanent Coordination Body for IPR enforcement activities with participation from the tax administration, police, customs, and several state inspection services. Cooperation with the Special Department for High-Technology Crime has resulted in court decisions to impose penalties in test cases against online traders and counterfeits. The Public Procurement Law requires bidders to affirm that they have ownership of any IPR utilized in fulfilling a public procurement contract. Although trade in counterfeit goods – particularly athletic footwear and other clothing – declined in recent years as the government increased enforcement efforts, the overall amount of seized counterfeit and pirated goods increased in 2020. Upon seizure, authorities cannot destroy the goods without formal instructions from the rightsholders, who are billed for the storage and destruction of the counterfeit goods. Rightsholders are encouraged to register their IPR with the Customs Office by filling out an application for surveillance measures.
Inspectorates and customs authorities’ actions against IPR violations are relatively fast. However, enforcement of IPR in the court system often lasts up to two years in the first instance. Proceedings improved after the creation of semi-specialized IPR courts in 2015, according to the Serbia’s non-governmental Foreign Investors’ Council. The Serbian Intellectual Property Office continues to train judges on IPR to enable more timely court decisions.
Digital IPR theft is not common, but many digital brands are not properly protected, and there is a risk of trademark-squatting.
6. Financial Sector
Serbia welcomes both domestic and foreign portfolio investments and regulates them efficiently. The government removed most restrictions on short-term portfolio investments in April 2018. Residents of Serbia, both companies and persons, are now allowed to purchase foreign short-term securities issued by EU residents and EU countries, and by international financial organizations who have EU countries in their membership. Banks registered in Serbia can also purchase short-term securities issued by OECD countries. Foreigners may only purchase short-term securities in Serbia if they have residency and/or headquarters in EU countries. Payments related to long-term securities have no restriction.
In 2021, Serbia recorded net inflows of $1.6 billion in portfolio investment, according to the National Bank of Serbia. Analysts have explained this inflow mostly as a result of Serbia’s issuance of Eurobonds. The government regularly issues bonds to finance its budget deficit, including short-term, dinar-denominated T-bills, and dinar-denominated, euro-indexed government bonds. The total value of government debt securities issued on the domestic market reached $12.1 billion in December 2021, with 79% in dinars and 21% in euros. In addition, Serbia issued a total value of €7.3 billion of Eurobonds on the international market. The share of dinar denominated securities held by non-residents was 18%, which was equal to $1.8 billion at the end of December 2021.
Total Serbian government-issued debt instruments on the domestic and international markets stood at $20 billion in December 2021.
Serbia’s international credit ratings have improved since 2019 but remain below investment grade. In March 2021, Moody’s Investors Service upgraded Serbia’s long-term issuer and senior unsecured ratings from Ba3 to Ba2 while adjusting its outlook from positive to stable. In December 2021, S&P improved Serbia’s outlook from stable to positive and confirmed its BB+ rating. In February 2022, Fitch confirmed Serbia’s credit as BB+ with a stable outlook.
Serbia’s equity and bond markets are underdeveloped. Corporate securities and government bonds are traded on the Belgrade Stock Exchange (BSE) ( ). Of 990 companies listed on the exchange, shares of fewer than 100 companies are traded regularly (more than once a week). Total annual turnover on the BSE in 2021 was $380 million, a decrease of 16% from the prior year. Trading volumes have declined from a peak of $2.7 billion in 2007.
The Securities Commission, established in 1995, regulates the Serbian securities market. The Commission also supervises investment funds in accordance with the Investment Funds Law. As of February 2022, 19 registered investment funds operate in Serbia: .
Market terms determine credit allocation. In December 2021, the total volume of issued loans in the financial sector stood at $30 billion. Average interest rates, while, decreasing, are still higher than the EU average. The business community cites tight credit policies and expensive commercial borrowing for all but the largest corporations as impediments to business expansion. Around 62% of all lending is denominated in euros, 0.1% in Swiss francs, and 0.2% in U.S. dollars, all of which provide lower rates, but also shift exchange-rate risk to borrowers.
Foreign investors are able to obtain credit on the domestic market. The government and central bank respect IMF Article VIII, and do not place restrictions on payments or transfers for current international transactions.
Hostile takeovers are extremely rare in Serbia. The Law on Takeover of Shareholding Companies regulates defense mechanisms. Frequently after privatization, the new strategic owners of formerly state-controlled companies have sought to buy out minority shareholders.
Serbian SMEs often do not access credit, instead turning to friends or family when they need investment and operational funds. Only a few corporate and municipal bonds have been issued, and the financial market is not well developed. In April 2020, the government amended corporate-bond issuance legislation to increase companies’ access to financing in response to COVID-19’s economic impact. The amendments cut the timeline for issuing corporate bonds from 77 to 17 days and the price to issue a corporate bond from $88,000 to $11,000. This measure was in force until November 2020, during which time the total value of corporate bonds issued was $503 million, of which $440 million were issued by state-owned companies. Media reported that the National Bank of Serbia (NBS) purchased $275 million worth of the bonds.
NBS regulates the banking sector. Foreign banks may establish operations in Serbia, and foreigners may freely open both local currency and hard currency non-resident accounts. The banking sector comprises 91% of financial sector assets. As of November 2021, consolidation had reduced the sector to 23 banks with total assets of $49 billion (about 85% of GDP), with 89% of the market held by foreign-owned banks. The top ten banks, with country of ownership and estimated assets, are Banca Intesa (Italy, $7.6 billion in assets); OTP (Hungary, $6.4 billion); UniCredit (Italy, $5.3 billion); Komercijalna Banka (recently sold to Slovenia’s NLB Bank, $4.8 billion); Raiffeisen (Austria, $4.3 billion); Postanska Stedionica (Serbian government, $3.3 billion); Erste Bank (Austria, $3.1 billion) AIK Banka Nis (Serbia, $2.2 billion); Eurobank EFG (Greece, $2.1 billion); and Naša AIK Banka (Serbia – formerly Sberbank, $1.9 billion).
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions against Russian banks, including Sberbank, on February 25, 2022, due to Russian aggression in Ukraine and prohibited corresponding relations with these banks. Serbia has not joined U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia. Still, these banks are likely to face significant obstacles in their operations in Serbia, including the inability to transfer assets to and from foreign countries. Until the imposition of banking sanctions, Sberbank’s Serbian affiliate was the only significant Russian bank in Serbia. Its sale to Serbia’s privately owned Agroindustrial Commercial Bank (AIK Bank) was completed March 1, 2022, and it changed its name to Naša AIK Banka. Only two Russian banks are now operating in Serbia: API Bank and Expobank, with combined assets of approximately $300 million, constituting less than one percent of Serbia’s banking-sector assets.
For more information, see:
The IMF assessed in its December 2021 report on Serbia’s Policy Coordination Instrument that the banking system has been stable owing to adequate capitalization, high liquidity, and profitability. As of June 2021, banks’ capital adequacy was stable at 22.2%, well above the regulatory minimum of 8%, while asset quality is improving. Banks’ profitability remains robust with return-on-assets and return-on-equity ratios of 1.2% and 7.4% respectively in August 2021. From 2015 to December 2021, non-performing loans (NPLs) declined from 21.6% to 3.5 % of total Serbian loan portfolios, and NPLs are fully provisioned. Significant foreign-exchange risks remain, as 67% of all outstanding loans are indexed to foreign currencies, primarily the euro. In 2019, the government adopted a law that protected consumers who had taken mortgage loans denominated in Swiss francs by converting them into euros. Banks and the state shared losses resulting from the accompanying reduction of outstanding principal and interest balances. This law enabled borrowers to continue servicing debt on more favorable terms.
Serbia does not have a sovereign wealth fund.
7. State-Owned Enterprises
State-owned enterprises (SOEs) dominate many sectors of the economy, including energy, transportation, utilities, telecommunications, infrastructure, mining, and natural resource extraction. Serbia’s Agency for Business Registers (ABR) maintains a publicly available database of all SOEs on its website at . As of March 2022, according to this database, 266 SOEs are in normal operation, 42 are in bankruptcy, and two are in liquidation. However, the most recently available recorded 545 SOEs employing a total of more than 114,000 people, or approximately 4% of the formal workforce and accounting for 6% of total business sector revenues. (The report for 2021 is expected to be published in June 2022.) At the beginning of 2022, 64 SOEs with a total of nearly 25,000 employees were slated to be resolved through privatization or bankruptcy, down from 90 companies in early 2019. The government has launched a privatization tendering process for two of those companies, and the Ministry of Economy is preparing 10-15 additional companies for divestiture (see Privatization Program, below).
The Law on Public Enterprises, adopted in February 2016, defines a public enterprise as “an enterprise pursuing an activity of common interest, founded by the State or Autonomous Province or a local government unit.” The law also defines “strategically important companies” as those in which the state has at least a 25% ownership share. The law aimed to introduce responsible corporate management in public companies and strengthen supervision over public companies’ management. The law requires that directors of public companies be selected through a public application procedure and that they not hold any political party positions while serving. The law also requires that a portion of public companies’ profits be paid directly to the state, provincial, or local government budget. However, Transparency International Serbia analyzed implementation of the law in an ad hoc report in September 2017 and concluded that almost none of these requirements have been implemented, including the professionalization and transparency of management. The full report can be seen at:
SOEs can purchase goods from the private sector and foreign firms under the Public Procurement Law. For example, foreign companies regularly win public tenders for the construction of roads and other infrastructure projects. Under the Public Procurement Law, a buyer must select a domestic supplier if the domestic supplier’s price is no more than 5% higher than a foreign supplier’s price. The Public Procurement Office, an independent state body, supervises implementation of the Law on Public Procurement. Serbia, not yet a member of the WTO, is not a party to the WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement.
Private enterprises have the same access to financing, land, and raw materials as SOEs, as well as the same tax burden and rebate policies. However, the IMF estimated that in 2014, SOEs enjoyed benefits amounting to approximately 2% of GDP.
The IMF has recommended that the government phase out support for SOEs. In 2016, Serbia committed to significantly reduce the fiscal cost of SOEs by curtailing direct and indirect subsidies, strictly limiting the issuance of new guarantees, and enhancing the accountability, transparency, and monitoring of SOEs. This goal remains a key element of Serbia’s current IMF program. The government decreased the level of quasi-fiscal support (issuing of new guarantees) from $860 million in 2016 to $110 million in 2020. In the latest IMF program, launched in June 2021, the IMF stressed the importance of advancing the SOE reform agenda, including improving corporate governance. Serbia, with EBRD support, adopted an action plan to implement a new ownership and governance strategy for SOEs in June 2021. The Action Plan is posted online at: .
From 2001 through 2015, the Serbian government privatized 3,047 SOEs. The government cancelled 646 of these privatizations, alleging that investors did not meet contractual obligations related to employment and investment. According to the Privatization Law, the deadline for the privatization of the 646 companies in the Privatization Agency’s portfolio was December 31, 2015. However, 62 companies were still unresolved as of February 2022. These companies include health spas, veterinary stations, and companies located in Kosovo, among others. Most significantly, the Ministry of Economy must still resolve several large, strategically important SOEs including the Resavica coal mine in east-central Serbia, chemical company MSK Kikinda, and others. In many cases, closing these companies would do serious damage to their local economies, where they are key employers. The government continues to engage foreign investors in the privatization process, inviting them to submit bids, participate in auctions, and purchase company shares. Invitations for privatization and bidding are published on the Ministry of Economy website at .
In December 2018, France-based Vinci Airports took over operation of Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport under a 25-year concession agreement. According to official statements, Vinci had offered €501 million to manage the airport and €732 million in investment, as well as an annual fee of up to €16 million. At the end of 2020, the government completed the sale of the country’s second largest bank, Komercijalna Banka, to Slovenia’s NLB bank. The government sold the petrochemical company Petrohemija to the Russian majority-owned petroleum company Naftna Industrija Serbije (NIS) in December 2021. The government has started the process of converting the country’s largest SOE, the power utility EPS, into a joint share-holding company as recommended by the IMF, but the IMF has not recommended fully privatizing the company, and the government has no plans to do so. The government plans to privatize three companies in 2022: river shipping company Jugoslovensko rečno brodarstvo, Hotel Slavija in Belgrade, and transport company Lasta.
8. Responsible Business Conduct
Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) and Corporate Social Responsibility are relatively new concepts in Serbia, and until recently many Serbian companies viewed them mainly as public-relations tools. The Serbian government has no formal mechanism in place to encourage companies to follow a due-diligence approach to RBC. The Council for Philanthropy held its first session in September 2018. The Council, chaired by the Prime Minister and founded with grant support from USAID, aims to use public policy to create a more encouraging environment for corporate giving in Serbia. Members of the Council include ten government ministers, the Belgrade Mayor, the Director of the Tax Administration, several NGOs, and 29 member companies as of April 2020. Donors have pointed to issues that have a negative impact on philanthropy, including a lack of tax incentives for donors, no available VAT exemptions for in-kind donations, the lack of a system for monitoring donations from companies, and the absence of official data on charities.
The USAID project “Framework for Giving Activity,” which recently ended, strengthened philanthropy and charitable giving in Serbia. The activity focused on improving the legal and policy framework related to charitable giving to make giving easier and more transparent.
According to the 2019 World Giving Index published by the Charities Aid Foundation, Serbia was ranked 123rd out of 126 countries listed in a 10-year aggregate survey of number of people who donate to charity or participate in volunteer work: HYPERLINK “https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-publications/caf_wgi_10th_edition_report_2712a_web_101019.pdf” https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-publications/caf_wgi_10th_edition_report_2712a_web_101019.pdf
The Law on Public Procurement allows the government to ask bidders to fulfill additional conditions, especially those related to social and environmental issues, and allows the government to consider criteria such as environmental protection and social impact when evaluating bids.
The UN Development Program’s Global Compact initiative has 118 participants in Serbia and has organized a number of educational events intended to strengthen RBC capacity in Serbia. The list of members is available at: .
Several local organizations, such as the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), the Foreign Investors’ Council, and the Serbian Chamber of Commerce (PKS) promote the concept of RBC among the Serbian business community and the public. PKS presents a national award to Socially Responsible Businesses. The Trag Foundation supports the Serbian Philanthropy Forum, a networking body for donors (including numerous corporate actors). The NGO Smart Kolektiv provides consulting services in RBC and established in 2016, with USAID support, an RBC Index which is the first national platform for assessing responsible business conduct in Serbia.
The Responsible Business Forum Serbia is a network of socially responsible companies that contribute to the development of the community, stimulating the development of corporate social responsibility and the establishment of firm and lasting socially responsible practices in the business sector. It was established in 2008 by 14 leading companies in Serbia. More information about the Forum is available at: .
Multinational companies often bring international best practices in RBC, with U.S. companies among the most active. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many large companies donated money and goods to help government combat the crisis; more info is available at: .
Allegations of labor-rights violations are uncommon in Serbia. However, in December 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for an investigation into forced labor at the construction site for the Chinese-owned LingLong tire-manufacturing plant in Zrenjanin, in northern Serbia. Media and anti-trafficking NGOs reported that approximately 500 Vietnamese workers were living in poor accommodations and lacked access to sufficient food and water, their passports having been confiscated upon arrival.
According to a 2016 OECD study on small and medium enterprises, Serbia has no national strategy that targets environmental policy toward small and medium-size enterprises. See . Serbia’s 2011 Corporate Law introduced contemporary corporate standards, but business associations indicate that implementation is inconsistent.
The government does not maintain a national point of contact for OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, including OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Afflicted and High-Risk Areas. The government does not participate in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative or the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
Serbia has a private sector security industry but is not a signatory of the Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies. Serbia is also not a supporter of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers and is not a participant in the International Code of Conduct Association.
Department of State
- Country Reports on Human Rights Practices;
- Trafficking in Persons Report;
- Guidance on Implementing the “UN Guiding Principles” for Transactions Linked to Foreign Government End-Users for Products or Services with Surveillance Capabilities;
- U.S. National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises; and;
- Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory
Department of the Treasury
Department of Labor
Serbia is a signatory to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement. In June 2015, Serbia submitted its intended Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the UNFCCC, committing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 9.8% by 2030 compared to 1990. Serbia has developed a national Low-Carbon Development Strategy as part of a larger Climate Strategy and Action Plan. Although the plan has gone through the public review process, it has never been formally adopted, and the NDCs have not been ratified. The Ministry of Mining and Energy is developing a separate National Energy and Climate Plan that will define Serbia’s 2030 goals for energy efficiency, energy security, and decarbonization, along with implementation plans. At the COP-26 climate conference in Glasgow in November 2021, Serbia joined three international agreements targeting specific high-emitting sectors: those related to clean power, road transport, and hydrogen. Serbia also joined the Declaration on Forests and Land Use, which addresses the role of forest ecosystems in mitigating and adapting to climate change, as well as the Global Methane Pledge.
Serbia adopted its first Law on Climate Change in March 2021, with the aim to establish a monitoring, reporting and verification framework, a system to inventory greenhouse gas emissions, climate policies that insert low carbon strategies into the relevant institutional and legal framework, and procedures for setting up a national system for policies, measures, and projections. The climate-change law will set up the framework for the EU’s cap-and-trade emissions-trading system. In December 2021, Serbia opened so-called Cluster 4 in the EU accession negotiations, which includes environment and climate change.
Serbia also prepared the National Air Quality Strategy, currently pending government approval, that will address regulating greenhouse gas emissions, including from coal-fired thermal power plants. The action plan for the air quality strategy requires aggressive mitigation based on the most conservative modeling scenario in the next 15 years to meet Serbia’s emissions-reduction goals.
Serbia has adopted a National Strategy on Forest Development, under which it is planning to increase the national forest coverage from its current 30% of total area to 42% by 2050. Serbia has also adopted a National Strategy of Water Management for water conservation reform, which sets out long-term directions for water management at the national, regional, and local levels through 2034. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management has an early-warning system for extreme weather events and provides rehabilitation after weather emergencies.
According to BloombergNEF’s Climatescope, which evaluates and ranks conditions for energy transition investment, Serbia ranks number 37 among emerging markets and number 66 of 107 countries globally ( ).
Surveys consistently show that corruption remains an issue of concern in many areas. Serbia’s global ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index declined to 96 in 2021 from 91 in 2020. In Serbia’s EU accession process, the European Commission has repeatedly noted that Serbia must do more to fight corruption. Arrests and investigations on corruption charges generally focus on low or mid-level technocrats, and corruption-related trials are typically drawn out and subject to a lengthy appeal process.
Serbia is a signatory to the Council of Europe’s Civil Law Convention on Corruption, and it has ratified the Council’s Criminal Law Convention on Corruption, the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, and the UN Convention against Corruption. Serbia also is a member of the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), a peer-monitoring organization that provides peer-based assessments of members’ anti-corruption efforts. Twenty-five local governments in Serbia participated in USAID’s anti-corruption program, which ended in 2022, and introduced and increased transparency measures in their processes.
The government has worked to bring its legal framework for preventing and combating corruption in line with EU norms. A dedicated state body, the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, plays a preventative role in fighting corruption, while dedicated Anticorruption Police and prosecutors investigate and prosecute cases of corruption. The Criminal Code specifies numerous bases for prosecution of corruption and economic offenses, including but not limited to giving or accepting a bribe, abuse of office, abuse of a monopoly, malfeasance in public procurement, abuse of economic authority, fraud in service, and embezzlement. However, a new National Strategy for Fighting Corruption to replace the expired 2013-2018 version has yet to be drafted – a concern frequently raised by the European Commission and Serbia’s Anti-Corruption Council, an advisory body to the government.
In 2018, Serbia’s Parliament strengthened anti-corruption laws through three pieces of legislation: The Law on Organization and Jurisdiction of State Organs in Suppressing Organized Crime, Terrorism, and Corruption for the first time established specialized anti-corruption prosecution units and police and judicial departments, mandated the use of task forces, and introduced liaison officers and financial forensic experts. The Law on Asset Forfeiture was amended to expand coverage to new criminal offenses, and amendments to the Criminal Code made corruption offenses easier to prosecute. Following these legal changes, specialized anti-corruption departments started operations in March 2018 in Novi Sad, Belgrade, Kraljevo, and Niš to prosecute offenders who have committed crimes of corruption valued at less than RSD 200 million ($2 million). Cases valued above this level are handled by the Organized Crime Prosecutor’s Office.
Serbia’s Law on the Prevention of Corruption, which went into effect in 2020, requires income and asset disclosure by appointed or elected officials, and it regulates conflicts of interest for public officials. Disclosures cover assets of officials, spouses, and dependent children. Declarations should be publicly available on the website of the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, and failures to file or to fully disclose income and assets are subject to administrative and/or criminal sanctions. Significant changes to assets or income must be reported annually, upon departure from office, and for a period of two years after separation. Independent media reported cases where high-level officials allegedly did not comply with asset disclosure laws by failing to report assets.
The Law on Public Procurement, adopted in 2020, introduced mandatory use of an online public-procurement portal. While the portal noticeably improved transparency and procedures, independent watchdogs reported that more than half of completed public procurement tenders since the implementation of the new law have resulted in only one offer, which indicated continued issues with transparency of public procurement procedures or the establishment of non-competitive procurement processes that favor certain vendors.
Serbian authorities do not require private companies to establish internal codes of conduct related to corruption or other matters, but some professional associations (e.g., for attorneys, engineers, and doctors) enforce codes of conduct for their members. Private companies often have internal controls, ethics codes, or compliance programs designed to detect and prevent bribery of government officials. Large companies often have internal programs, especially in industries such as tobacco, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and industries regularly involved in public procurement.
In 2020, the Parliament adopted a Parliamentary Code of Conduct, aimed at addressing GRECO recommendations regarding conflict of interest and other issues of ethics among parliamentarians. However, the code lacks meaningful independent enforcement mechanisms.
Serbian law does not provide protection for non-governmental organizations involved in investigating corruption. However, the criminal procedure code provides witness protection measures, and Serbia enacted a Whistleblower Protection Law in June 2015, under which individuals can report corruption in companies and government agencies and receive court protection from retaliation by their employers. Whistleblowers in high profile cases against state-owned enterprises have claimed they do not receive adequate protections under the existing law.
U.S. firms interested in doing business or investing in Serbia are advised to perform due diligence before concluding business deals. Legal audits generally are consistent with international standards, using information gathered from public books, the register of fixed assets, the court register, the statistical register, as well as from the firm itself, chambers, and other sources. The U.S. Commercial Service in Belgrade can provide U.S. companies with background information on companies and individuals via the International Company Profile (ICP) service. An ICP provides information about a local company or entity, its financial standing, and reputation in the business community, and includes a site visit to the local company and a confidential interview with the company management. For more information, contact the local office at and visit . The U.S. Commercial Service also maintains lists of international consulting firms in Belgrade, local consulting firms, experienced professionals, and corporate/commercial law offices, in addition to its export promotion and advocacy services for U.S. business.
Some U.S. firms have identified corruption as an obstacle to foreign direct investment in Serbia. Corruption appears most pervasive in cases involving public procurement, natural resource extraction, government-owned property, and political influence/pressure on the judiciary and prosecutors.
Corruption may be reported to officers at any police station. If dedicated anti-corruption law-enforcement personnel are not available, the officer in charge is to contact Anti-Corruption Police personnel to report to the location so that a complaint may be filed.
10. Political and Security Environment
Since October 2000, Serbia has had democratically elected governments that have committed publicly to supporting regional stability and security. Governments, however, frequently call early elections at the local and national level, which often leave politicians and elected officials focused on the next campaign. Serbia held parliamentary elections in June 2020. President Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won an overwhelming majority, with more than 60 percent of the vote and obtained 188 of 250 parliamentary seats. Vucic and his party benefitted from prolific media access unavailable to other parties, the effectively blurred distinction between campaign and official activities, and the inability of other parties to campaign during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) concluded that, aside from state-of-emergency restrictions, candidates were able to campaign, and fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly were respected. However, the advantage enjoyed by the governing party, the decision of some opposition parties to boycott the elections, and limited policy debate narrowed the choice and information available to voters, according to ODIHR.
The government has made EU membership a primary goal. Serbia has opened 22 of 35 chapters in the EU accession acquis and provisionally closed two. After a long delay in Serbia’s accession process the European Commission in 2021 recommended opening a new “cluster” of accession chapters, pointing to some progress in judicial and rule-of-law reform.
Protests are not uncommon, particularly in urban areas, and most protests are peaceful. In late 2021 and in early 2022, environmental activists staged regular nationwide protests that occasionally blocked highways or resulted in a few minor incidents of violence, although police response to these protests was restrained. Past protests, particularly in Belgrade, were at times violent, with protestors attempting to enter the parliament building during protests against COVID lockdown measures in 2020. Press noted that in addition to concerns regarding COVID, many of the demonstrators during these protests were also protesting political corruption.
Although previous years had seen some assaults against participants in LGBTQI events in Serbia, following its seventh successive incident-free Pride Parade, Serbia was selected to host EuroPride in 2022. Although this indicates some confidence that a recurrence of wide-scale violence against Serbia’s LGBTQI community is unlikely, discrimination and physical attacks continue.
Criminal activity linked to transnational organized crime groups is a regular phenomenon in Serbia. Sport hooliganism is often associated with organized crime, and violent hooliganism remains a concern at matches of rival soccer teams within Serbia. A significant police operation in January 2021 against a major organized crime group linked to Belgrade’s Partizan football club resulted in the arrest of the group’s leader, who was suspected of multiple crimes. Several ultra-nationalist organizations in Serbia have harassed Serbian political leaders, local NGOs, minority groups, migrants, and media outlets considered to be pro-Western, but these incidents are infrequent.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
In the last quarter of 2021, according to Serbia’s Statistics Office, the country had a total active labor force of approximately 3.23 million people, of which approximately 2.9 million were employed (55.6% men and 44.4% women) and 316,700 were unemployed. The formal employment rate was 50%, and the informal employment rate was 13.7%, with most of the total informally employed in services and agriculture. Unemployment in the last quarter of 2021 stood at 9.8%. Youth unemployment remained relatively high at 28.7%. Emigration of younger high-skilled working-age citizens is a serious concern, and the share of youth in the total population drops from year to year. The leading sector for employment is manufacturing, followed by government and public administration, agriculture and forestry, fishery, trade, transport, construction, and hospitality services.
The socioeconomic status of women is significantly worse than that of men. The largest number of discrimination complaints relate to disability, age, and gender. According to the Statistics Office, the wage gap between women and men is 8.8% in favor of men. Other reports showed women’s career advancement was slower, and that women were underrepresented in most professions and faced discrimination related to parental leave.
The presence of foreign workers is increasing, especially in construction. After the initial success of the 2018 Law on Simplified Work Engagement on Seasonal Jobs in Selected Areas, in the field of Agriculture, the government is considering expanding the scope of law from agriculture to other areas, including forestry and fisheries, construction, tourism and hospitality, and domestic work. NGOs and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have raised concerns that the proposed amendments could result in stripping migrant and seasonal workers of labor rights, including the right to form unions and mechanisms for redress of abuse.
Demand for IT experts (web developers, programmers, designers) is significantly higher than supply. The National Employment Service (NES) administers various employment support schemes, including new employment, apprenticeship, and re-training programs. For more details see and .
Serbia’s labor costs are relatively low compared to European averages. In December 2021, the average net take-home salary was approximately $693 per month, while the minimum wage was approximately $324 per month. Investors routinely cite low labor costs, as well as a highly educated, multilingual workforce, as advantages to doing business in Serbia, while availability of skilled labor is limited by large-scale emigration. Approximately 57% of the workforce has completed secondary education, while some 26% have completed higher education.
Amendments to the Labor Law in 2014 simplified procedures for hiring and dismissing workers and changed rules for collective bargaining and the extension of collective agreements to non-negotiating parties. The law also changed severance payment requirements, so that the employer pays severance based on the years of service with that specific employer, rather than on the employee’s total years of employment, as was the case previously. Employees may be hired for up to 24 months on a provisional basis before it is required to engage them permanently.
The official mechanism for tripartite labor dialogue is the Social and Economic Council, an independent body with representatives of the government, the Serbian Association of Employers, and trade unions. The Council is authorized to conclude an umbrella collective agreement at the national level covering basic employment conditions for all companies in Serbia. Additional information about the Council is available at .
Serbia has ratified all eight ILO core conventions, including Forced Labor (No. 29), Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize (No. 87), Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining (No. 98), Equal Remuneration (No. 100), Abolition of Forced Labor (No. 105), Discrimination (No. 111), Minimum Age (No. 138), and Worst Forms of Child Labor (No. 182).
The Staff Leasing Law, which came into force in 2020, regulates leased employees’ status, the staffing agencies, and recipient employers. Under the law, employers may hire up to 10% of their workforce with fixed-term contracts through an agency, with no limit on those with indefinite-term employment contracts.