Monday, July 30, 2007

The battler in the Balkans

Gligor Tashkovich, its minister for foreign investment, declared the landlocked Balkan state open for business when he made a three-day flying visit to New Zealand last week.

It was one of more than 15 countries he has canvassed in the past 11 months, in what could be described as a hard sell.

He told Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard that he wanted Kiwi exporters to look at his country as an investment hub, a "Singapore of Europe".

Fighting stereotypes and a global ignorance of what, and where, Macedonia was, the tall American-accented minister politely countered suggestions that people might laugh at investing in his country.

"It makes much sense to be in Macedonia where you have wage costs as low as China, you have free trade agreements, lower transportation costs, and the lowest taxes in Europe," he said.

The former Socialist Republic of Macedonia gained full independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Its centre-right government is only 11 months old, coming into power last year on the basis of dealing to corruption and anti-globalisation sentiment.

Previous ruling parties had put up barriers to foreign investment, which the current government was trying to break down, Mr Tashkovich said.

Cutting the time required to register a business from 48 days to four hours was a good example.

The next step was to be part of Europe, and an expected 2008 invitation to start the process to join the European Union was on the table.

The new government had made a public show - sometimes too public - of prosecuting officials found to be taking payments for services, including customs officers, police officers and doctors, Mr Tashkovich said.

As a result, investment in mining and manufacturing had shifted from neighbours such as Bulgaria to Macedonia.

Born and educated in the United States, where his father was in political exile, Mr Tashkovich returned to Macedonia to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, a senator and political leader for nine years till 1946.

The thing that drew him back was a personal plea from the new president of Macedonia when he returned with his family for a visit in 1992.

"He said `Look around you, see what you take for granted in America and make it happen here'."

Mr Tashkovich started by bringing in Time magazine as the country's first English-language publication and went on to lobby financial institutions, airlines and corporates to open up shop.

"I took (the president) literally."

With at least 15 countries visited in less than a year, some of them up to six times, he spends only about five days a month at home.

Despite his mission, he said the salvation of Macedonia lay not just in foreign capital.

"We have very high unemployment - foreign investment is not the answer to that."

With thousands of university graduates looking for employment, short-term work contracts in Australia, Canada, Britain and Qatar would elevate Macedonians' limited understanding of the world, he said.

"Macedonia lives in a time warp. It makes it very difficult to integrate with Europe and talk about things like anti-corruption."

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