Monday, March 26, 2007

Macedonia faces tough sell in efforts to forge ties with U.S.

Mention Macedonia, and most Americans won't know even the basics of the young Balkan country.

It's still seeking an identity in the global marketplace: 2 million residents. Formerly part of Yugoslavia. Landlocked. And now courting business to slash unemployment rates topping 35 percent.

So when Macedonia's foreign investment minister recently visited South Florida to promote ties, the New York-born Cornell University graduate faced a tough sell.

"It's definitely the hardest job I've ever done," said Gligor Tashkovich, 41, who took the post last year under Macedonia's new center-right administration -- partly to honor the memory of his ancestors born there. "It's like surfing a tidal wave perpetually."

Tashkovich said he's working overtime to lure foreign investment to Macedonia. He seeks to draw factories that can use its relatively low-wage labor to export auto parts, processed foods and call-center services to nearby European Union and beyond. And he aims to attract tourism to enjoy the nation's mountains.

The government now offers economic free zones, where export companies get ample tax breaks. It also has cut tax rates overall to some of Europe's lowest levels.

Plus, the administration slashed the time needed to start a new business -- a key gauge of international competitiveness -- from 48 days to three, Tashkovich said.

The efforts are starting to pay off. Johnson Controls of Milwaukee is building an auto parts factory for export, the minister said.

But competition is stiff from better-known nations, with a longer track record for welcoming investment and less of a reputation for corruption.

Macedonia had steered a socialistic course since its independence in 1991. Plus, political tensions with neighboring Greece and its Albanian minority have discouraged business, Tashkovich said.

"My biggest challenge is time," said the globetrotting minister, who aims to visit two countries a month to promote business and hope in Macedonia. "My understanding is the people are giving this government one last chance, after 15 years of being lied to."

No comments: