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Sarajevo summit discusses digital development in the Western Balkans

By Svitlana  Pyrkalo

  • Digital conference convenes private firms, financiers and government representatives
  • Discussions about opportunities for digital transformation and successes to date
  • Infrastructure and financial challenges include rural broadband rollout and e-commerce

The “Investing in Digitalisation in the Western Balkans” conference was held in Sarajevo today, including a donor coordination meeting on the “Common Regional Market in the Western Balkans – Regional Digital Area”. The event, jointly organised by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), was attended by private-sector companies from across the Western Balkans. Ministers in charge of the digital sector and other high-ranking government officials, local and international experts on digital projects, key donors and international financial institutions also participated.

While sharing success stories about digitalisation in the Western Balkans, participants agreed on the importance of boosting successful digitalisation models in the areas of soft and hard infrastructure in the private and public sectors. They discussed opportunities for the digitalisation of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as a source of growth and efficiency, as well as the opportunities digitalisation brings for a green transition. 

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

To date, the EBRD has invested more than €562 million in the information technology and communications sectors of the six Western Balkans economies. The Bank is now developing specialised financing programmes for digitalisation, 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 has included single access points for SMEs in Albania and Montenegro. Hundreds of SMEs have received advisory services on digitalisation.

Christoph Denk, EBRD Managing Director for Policy, Strategy and Delivery, said: “We at the EBRD are committed to doing more and better on digital. We launched our Approach to Accelerating the Digital Transition to outline what and how the Bank can deliver on the digital front for its partners, economies and clients. 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 digitalisation as an important tool for improving the investment climate, fostering international trade and strengthening transparency and trust in institutions. We are here to support our partners in the Western Balkans on their journey of digital transformation.”

Since 2020 alone, the EIB has provided €200 million for digital projects in the Western Balkans to help companies digitalise, improve the capacity, coverage and quality of the 4G network, advance the rollout of 5G mobile services, and increase digital capacity and skills in more than 1,500 schools. In 2022, its investments helped boost new digital business models globally, connecting 4 million households to fixed fibre and enabling 6.6 million subscriptions to 5G services.

Alessandro Bragonzi, EIB Head of Regional Representation for the Western Balkans, said: “Europe is facing a digital dilemma. While the Covid-19 crisis accelerated digitalisation, especially among SMEs, some companies are becoming increasingly digital, while others are being left behind, unable to catch the digital wave. An insufficient level of digital skills is hampering economic growth, deepening the digital divide and increasing the risk of digital exclusion. Investing in broadband networks and software development, cybersecurity and innovations is essential to ensure competitiveness and higher productivity throughout Europe and here in the Western Balkans. As the EU Bank, the EIB is committed to playing a key role in the implementation of the digital agenda for the region”.

In the afternoon session, the RCC gathered Western Balkans ministers and other high-ranking government officials from the digital sector, as well as key donors, international financial institutions and business representatives from the entire region, to coordinate approaches and discuss challenges in relation to digital infrastructure investments and the soft digital needs of the region.

The minister of communication and transport of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Edin Forto, participated in person, as did deputy minister of information of North Macedonia Aleksandar Bajdevski and head of broadband at the Montenegro government Viktor Berishaj. The minister of information of Serbia, Mihailo Jovanovic, joined virtually.

Majlinda Bregu, RCC Secretary General, said: “Governments across the region are ambitiously moving fast towards e-services, easing administrative procedures and reducing time through digital means. This underscores the need to have affordable internet access for all, particularly in public areas. Embarking on initiatives similar to our peers in the EU (like WiFi4EU) could improve e-service accessibility for all and contribute to reducing the digital divide. There is new momentum and a new normal in the digitalisation efforts of the Western Balkans. With the Digital Europe programme and similar financing opportunities, the new momentum of today will become the reality of tomorrow. The private sector can contribute qualitatively to this change.”

The digital agenda of the Western Balkans, coordinated by the RCC, has been a prime example of successful regional cooperation in recent years, as evidenced by the effective implementation of the “Roam Like at Home” regime within the region, as well as the signing of the EU-Western Balkans Roaming Declaration, enabling a reduction in roaming charges between the EU and the Western Balkans as of October 2023. Digital transformation has far greater potential to accelerate progress and transform threats into opportunities if managed well and wisely.

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