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Sarajevo summit discusses digital development in the Western Balkans

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  • Digital conference brings together private companies, financiers and government officials

  • Discussions on digital transformation opportunities and successes to date

  • Infrastructural and financial challenges include rural broadband deployment and e-commerce.

The “Investing in Digitalization in the Western Balkans” conference was held today in Sarajevo, including a donor coordination meeting on the “Common Regional Market in the Western Balkans – Regional Digital Space”. The event, jointly organized by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), brought together private sector companies from across the Balkans Westerners. Ministers responsible for the digital sector and other senior government officials, local and international experts in digital projects, key donors and international financial institutions also participated.

While sharing successful examples of digitalization in the Western Balkans, participants agreed on the importance of promoting successful digitalization models in the areas of hard and soft infrastructure in both the private and public sectors. They discussed the opportunities offered by the digitalization of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as a source of growth and efficiency, as well as the opportunities that digitalization offers for a green transition.

During the first part of the conference, the EBRD and EIB presented a selection of projects and investment initiatives in the field of digital transformation.

To date, the EBRD has invested more than €562 million in the information technology and communications sectors of the six Western Balkan economies. The Bank is currently developing specialized financing programs for digitalization, the first of which – the €40 million GoDigital credit line in partnership with the European Union (EU) – launched last year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Technical cooperation included single access points for SMEs in Albania and Montenegro. Hundreds of SMEs have benefited from digitalization consulting services.

Christoph Denk, EBRD Managing Director for Policy, Strategy and Implementation, said: “At the EBRD, we are committed to doing more and better on digital. We launched our Approach to accelerate the digital transition to describe what and how the Bank can offer on the digital front to its partners, economies and customers. Restoring telecommunications was our priority from day one – in fact, it was our first project in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the war. Today, we see digitalization as an important tool to improve the investment climate, foster international trade and strengthen transparency and trust in institutions. We are here to support our partners in the Western Balkans on their digital transformation journey.

Since 2020 alone, the EIB has allocated €200 million to digital projects in the Western Balkans to help businesses digitize, improve 4G network capacity, coverage and quality, advance deployment 5G mobile services and increase digital capacity and skills in the digital domain. more than 1,500 schools. In 2022, its investments helped drive new digital business models globally, connecting 4 million homes to fixed fiber and enabling 6.6 million subscriptions to 5G services.

Alessandro Bragonzi, Head of the EIB Regional Representation for the Western Balkans, said: “Europe is facing a digital dilemma. While the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated digitalization, particularly among SMEs, some companies are becoming increasingly digital, while others remain behind, unable to catch the digital wave. An insufficient level of digital skills hinders economic growth, widens the digital divide and increases the risk of digital exclusion. Investing in broadband networks and software development, cybersecurity and innovations is essential to ensure competitiveness and higher productivity across Europe and here in the Western Balkans. As the EU bank, the EIB is committed to playing a key role in implementing the digital agenda for the region.

In the afternoon, the RCC brought together Western Balkans ministers and other senior government officials from the digital sector, as well as key donors, international financial institutions and business representatives from across the region, to coordinate approaches and discuss digital challenges. investments in infrastructure and the soft digital needs of the region.

The Minister of Communications and Transport of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Edin Forto, participated in person, as did the Deputy Minister of Information of North Macedonia, Aleksandar Bajdevski, and the head of broadband in the government of Montenegro , Viktor Berishaj. Serbian Information Minister Mihailo Jovanovic joined virtually.

Majlinda Bregu, Secretary General of the RCC, said: “Governments in the region are moving rapidly and ambitiously towards e-services, facilitating administrative procedures and reducing delays through digital means. This highlights the need for affordable internet access for all, especially in public spaces. Embarking on initiatives similar to those of our peers in the EU (such as WiFi4EU) could improve the accessibility of electronic services for all and help bridge the digital divide. There is new momentum and a new normal in digitalization efforts in the Western Balkans. With the Digital Europe program and similar funding opportunities, today’s new momentum will become tomorrow’s reality. The private sector can contribute qualitatively to this change.

The Western Balkans digital agenda, coordinated by the RCC, has been an excellent example of successful regional cooperation in recent years, as evidenced by the effective implementation of the “Roam Like at Home” scheme in the region, as well as the signing of the EU-Western Balkans Statement on Roaming, enabling a reduction in roaming charges between the EU and the Western Balkans from October 2023. Digital transformation has much greater potential to accelerate progress and transform threats into opportunities if managed correctly and judiciously.

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