During the weekend of November 19-21, political chiefs, business leaders and other central European luminaries met in Zagreb, Croatia at the first annual Central European Initiative (CEI) Summit. The summit was an overwhelming success, with delegates from the 16 CEI member countries taking part in discussions on the political, macroeconomic and business environment of the region.
The conference gave each country of central Europe two basic opportunities to formally present itself. The first chance came through the country exhibition stands, which offered information on investment environments, privatization opportunities, tourism and so on. The second and more important opportunities were the country profile presentations, in which leading political officials and members of foreign investment agencies made a concerted public pitch to attract investors.
The Slovak delegation, led by Premier Mikuláš Dzurinda, Economy Minister Ľudovít Černák and Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, turned in a very disappointing performance at this year's CEI summit. In contrast, many of the central European countries that Slovakia considers to be further down the totem pole in terms of European Union integration and democracy made convincing, professional appeals to the international audience in attendance.
The first negative sign was that when the summit began on November 19, Slovakia was one of maybe two countries that did not have an exhibition stand already prepared.
A second and far more important signal was sent during the country presentation section of the meet, which was held on November 21 at 13:45. The Slovak delegates presented their material in a very unconvincing fashion, despite the fact that this was supposed to be a propaganda opportunity for business opportunities in Slovakia. The speakers lacked the necessary linguistic and oratorial talents to convince their listeners that Slovakia is an attractive and progressive country. If not for the well-prepared speech of David Brown, a Scotsman who is also the chief advisor of the Slovak investment agency SNAZIR, the overall Slovak presentation would have had a much more negative impact.
On the other hand, many countries that are neither economically nor politically more advanced than Slovakia covered themselves with glory at the summit. Croatia, in particular, stood out with the well-rehearsed speeches of its government officials and their knack for stirring interest from the crowd. Croatia's presentation was not only clear and effective, but was assisted with well-prepared videos and statistics. In addition, countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, which are considered by many to be far behind Slovakia in the progress they are making towards integration with western structures, made very good impressions on the assembled delegates.
It must be remembered, of course, that the new Slovak government has been in office barely a month, and has had little time to catch its breath, never mind polish summit presentations. But on the other hand, the men who left such a mixed impression of Slovakia in the minds of investors were the nation's leading politicians. If this country is to stand any chance of integrating with the EU, it will need public figures who can make a convincing case to the international community. Both the message and the messenger must grab the attention of the European audience, or Slovakia can give up its EU dreams and fall by the integration wayside.
Public perception has done serious harm to Slovakia with regard to direct foreign investment as well. In order to catch up to its regional neighbours this late in the day, the country must repair the deficit in public and business trust created by the Mečiar government. This, again, requires a cadre of politicians and businessmen who appear smart, sharp and professional in public, and who arrive at international summits prepared to knock the socks off investors. It is, after all, a tough old world out there.
Alston Barrow, an investment manager with Sevis Securities, attended the CEI Conference
30. Nov 1998 at 0:00 | Alston Barrow