‘Being Irish has always been a considerable asset in Serbia’
Patricia Gannon is one of 25 Irish in Serbia, where she has run a law firm for 20 years
Patricia Gannon: ‘Nothing could have prepared me for living in a country at war and under sanctions.’
The Chinese have a saying about living in interesting times and very often throughout my 20 years in Serbia, this has come to mind.
Around the time many Serbs were leaving the country run by Slobodan Milosevic, I moved there. At the age of 26 I fell in love with and then married a Serbian lawyer, and we set up a law firm together. I had studied Law at Trinity and completed my apprenticeship in Dublin, but knew I wanted to work in an international environment. So I spent time in Munich and at the European Commission in Brussels, before settling in the Balkans.
Nothing could have prepared me for living in a country at war and under sanctions. There were daily struggles to find basic products, power shortages and overfilled city busses. On the other hand, I learned to appreciate the strong sense of pride that normal Serbs had, and their remarkable capacity for making do.
Today, the country is still on a long and troublesome path towards European integration, and it increasingly feels like joining the EU is an unachievable aspiration which is getting further and further away.
Having grown up in Ireland I took being part of the EU for granted. I felt part of something which was much bigger than Ireland. The opposite has happened in Serbia, a small republic which emerged out of the much bigger Yugoslavia. It’s a different perspective.
The refugee crisis that is at the forefront of European news is right on my doorstep, and daily we have thousands of refugees passing through on their way to a Europe they do not understand. In the summer they were to be seen on the streets of Belgrade grabbing a halal falafel, boarding in cheap hostels or sleeping in the park by the bus station and texting their friends. Now, due to the sheer numbers, they are being bussed directly from one border to the next so we see very few. Luckily the autumn was mild, but everyone is concerned about the winter as the days grow colder.
The law firm we set up together now has 150 employees, with offices in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia. I spend a lot of time travelling between them, which gives me a remarkable insight to the differences and similarities in the markets, and what investment opportunities are there.
The Balkans is also a beautiful undeveloped part of Europe which very few come to explore, so it is a privilege to get to travel around it so much. With the exception of Croatia, whose wonderful coast and islands are well-known to tourists, the rest is a mystery for European travelers. Most visitors are open-minded youngsters looking for cheaper holidays but with good food, great wine and surprisingly good nightlife.
The climate is one of the big factors keeping me here; we have wonderfully long, hot summers and short cold winters, which I love.
We celebrated the 20 year anniversary of the firm this year, which was an important milestone for us. The world has changed a lot since then.
Our clients are usually global corporates, banks and funds, but what I really enjoy is working with the fledgling start-up community here. Historically, there were good technical faculties, and Serbian engineers and developers work all over the world, having left the country in the 1990s. We work hard to slow down the “brain drain” nowadays, trying to develop an ecosystem to promote new jobs and entrepreneurs.
Being Irish has always been a considerable asset here in Serbia; locals believe we are very similar, as we have strong family ties and enjoy life as much as possible. There are about 25 Irish here and the number has been pretty stable over the past 20 years, but we are always looking to attract more Irish investors. It has been an interesting journey which has worked out well for me.