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VISITING AMERICANS DO MORE THAN EXCHANGE BUSINESS CARDS

US trade delegation ends whirlwind tour

During the three days he spent in Slovakia on the largest US-Slovak trade mission in history, Cinergy representative Kevin Leahy met briefly with Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and Ľudovít Kaník, the head of the FNM privatisation agency. Weeks before, his energy company had dominated Slovak headlines as rumors flew that it had secretly purchased Slovak gas giant Nafta Gbely.
The trade mission gave him the opportunity to set the record straight. "We are still interested in looking at Nafta," he said, adding that no purchase of Nafta shares had been made so far. "We would still like to invest here but we require open, standard and international tender conditions."
"Nafta is like a statue covered in mud," he continued, speaking to The Slovak Spectator at a gala dinner in Bratislava, one of the mission's social events. "We came near it, and we got some mud on us. What is underneath, we still don't know."


A visiting team of American Congress members listens to a seminar on US investment in central and eastern Europe on August 30.
photo: TASR

During the three days he spent in Slovakia on the largest US-Slovak trade mission in history, Cinergy representative Kevin Leahy met briefly with Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and Ľudovít Kaník, the head of the FNM privatisation agency. Weeks before, his energy company had dominated Slovak headlines as rumors flew that it had secretly purchased Slovak gas giant Nafta Gbely.

The trade mission gave him the opportunity to set the record straight. "We are still interested in looking at Nafta," he said, adding that no purchase of Nafta shares had been made so far. "We would still like to invest here but we require open, standard and international tender conditions."

"Nafta is like a statue covered in mud," he continued, speaking to The Slovak Spectator at a gala dinner in Bratislava, one of the mission's social events. "We came near it, and we got some mud on us. What is underneath, we still don't know."

For businessmen like Leahy, the mission which swept through Bratislava August 28-31 provided an opportunity to begin a personal relationship with people he had only read about in Slovak newspapers. For some of the other 40 business people who came along, the journey prompted them for the first time to think about investing here: indeed, it even helped some identify Slovakia on a map with confidence.

The mission attracted a wide range of important businesses, from the Ohio-based Cinergy, one of the world's largest power companies, to Raytheon Systems, a leading defence electronics firm. Some, like the insurance company Amslico, had already set up operations here, but most, like Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter & Co., were new.

The brief visit appeared to give few businessmen much more than a chance to greet government officials, to learn the basics of investing in Slovakia during an afternoon seminar, and to arrange short meetings with potential business partners. But while doing little more than exchange business cards, the American executives and Slovak politicians said they saw real opportunities for the future. The identity of the Slovak businessmen who met the American executives was kept confidential by the US Embassy.

Perhaps no one was more positive about the trip than US Congressman John Mica (R-FL), a politician of Slovak heritage who organized both the trade mission and a simultaneous state mission of government officials, including six colleagues from the House of Representatives. Though the mission alone will not be enough to solidify US investment in Slovakia, he said, it was a positive step.

"The most important thing needed to stabilise the economic situation in Slovakia is to develop a real market economy and enterprise activities," Mica said in an interview for The Slovak Spectator during a scenic boat tour on the Danube. "I can't make a big difference, but through this mission I can make a small difference, and many of those small efforts mean one step further for Slovakia."

Incentives

While the businessmen were in town, the government tried to make a case for why they should invest here. At a seminar, top representatives from the Economy Ministry listed the tax holidays, customs exemptions, subsidies for job creation and for training new employees that the government offers to foreign investors.

Economy Minister Ľudovít Černák was positive about what Slovakia had to offer, telling The Spectator "I think that these allowances are competitive with standard European incentives." The entrance of a strong US investor would act as a flagship, he added, encouraging other foreign investors to follow in its wake.

But even Slovak President Rudolf Schuster admitted Slovakia had a lot of work ahead to improve investment conditions.

"We have to support the US investors but at the same time prepare good conditions for business," he said, calling the mission a "very good beginning. Now businessmen should come, go through the country and see the factories and decide on the basis of their personal experience if they should invest."

Rodney Azama, managing director of the Chancellor Group, a project development firm, said he met with firms and officials from the Association of Slovak Cities, which wanted to talk about a partnership in the field of waste water. "The business environment is really improving." he said.

John Miller, a senior manager with Raytheon Systems Company said he hoped for "further cooperation" with the Defence Ministry after meeting with officials and explaining the company's defence technologies.

On August 31, the congressional mission headed to the Ukraine, while the business people stayed here for one more day of talks. The congressional mission was part of a larger taxpayer-funded tour focusing on crime and the drug trade, and which made stops in the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Netherlands. Before they left, Mica reiterated his full support for the government's reforms as well as its EU and NATO integration efforts.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) normally deals with Asian affairs, but decided to take Mica up on his invitation to visit Slovakia. At one point on the trip, he found himself advising the head of the Slovak Academy of Sciences on patenting potentially money-making discoveries.

"A lot of ideas come up on these trips," he said. "They're good for us, we can learn who are the good guys and who the bad guys are in a country like this. And its good for them [Slovaks] so they can get to know the movers and shakers of Washington who might have an idea of how to help them."

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