The dispute between United Group, Telekom Srbija and Telenor is spiralling out of control and looks increasingly irreconcilable.
So much so, in fact, it prompted Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic to suggest earlier this week it should be settled in court.
Let’s step back and try to take an impartial view of what’s actually going on. For United Group, which has recently expanded considerably through a number of high-profile acquisitions, Serbia is very much its home market, having been present in the country for two decades. It has been in dispute with Telekom Srbija, its main competitor in Serbia, for at least two years.
Telenor has also been present in Serbia for a considerable period of time. However, it is no longer owned by the Norwegian telco of the same name but rather the Czech Republic’s PPF Group, itself owned by the billionaire Petr Kellner. PPF Group has a growing presence in the CEE media and telecoms industry, with assets now including the Central European Media Enterprises (CME) operations.
The basis of the current dispute is evidence that United Group has released claiming Telekom Srbija has entered into an agreement with Telenor giving the latter access to its cable infrastructure and content. It has appeared on N1, a TV station owned by United Group, in the form of a signed contract saying that the aim of the deal is to effectively expel United Group from the market.
Telekom Srbija and Telenor have denied that there is anything untoward in their business relationship. Telenor has also confirmed that it has plans to enter the cable market in Serbia but to do so independently, while at the same time strongly criticised United Group and accued it of wanting a trade war.
United Group’s “evidence” is the contract and it is unclear – at least to me – if Telekom Srbija and Telenor have said the document is fraudulent.
The issues in this dispute of course go beyond competition and encompass press freedom, which is increasingly under threat not only in the Balkan region but CEE as a whole. That, one could argue, is something we should all be concerned about.
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