BACK in 1997, Madeleine Albright, then US Secretary of State, labelled Slovakia the black hole of Europe. "There was a good deal of truth in that statement. At the time, nobody wanted to communicate with our politicians," said Pavol Múdry, general manager of SITA, the private Slovak news agency.
SITA is a partner in the project Europe in Miniature, designed to promote Slovakia among European business leaders and policy-makers. After Paris and Brussels, the next stops for Europe in Miniature are Berlin on September 20 and Vienna on November 10.
"The major aim is, of course, to promote Slovakia abroad," said organiser Ľubomíra Slušná, president of the Association of Art and Communication.
A major feather in the association's hat was the Month of Slovak Culture, organised in New York back in 2001: "That was the first comprehensive presentation of Slovak culture in the United States," said Slušná.
The event reached over 100,000 New Yorkers and was sponsored by top companies such as US Steel in Košice.
Europe in Miniature, however, has a more modest goal than the New York exhibition.
Opening the Paris event was Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš, while State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Ivan Korčok graced the Brussels opening.
Via Europe in Miniature, the European business community can explore the country's economic opportunities thanks to participating companies sharing their experiences.
"Government presentations don't have the same effect as when business people talk about their own experiences. You need to reach people who want to know about Slovakia with information they need to know," said Slovak lobbyist Patrick Zoltvány, head of the Brussels office for Jenewein & Partners European Consulting.
Another partner in Europe in Miniature is Frenchman Philippe Boucly, chairman of the SPP Slovak gas company, partially owned by Gaz de France. He noted that Slovakia is not so well known in France.
"We're trying to promote the image of Slovakia in France. I would not say the image is bad; rather that it is not strong enough. And when the image of Slovakia does exist then it is good. There's a great deal of dynamism in Slovakia," he said.
Belgian Joost Berghmans, director of Beckaert Slovakia, brought up some less fortunate experiences with privatisation that followed the regime change in 1989.
"But from 2002 Slovakia has taken serious measures against corruption. NGOs like Transparency International have also played an important role in raising public awareness. But even Western European countries are susceptible to corruption, although it may be less evident."
Why did his company set up shop in Slovakia? "We had the choice between Hungary, Poland and the Czech republic," said Berghmans. "Good cooperation with the Slovak government helped us make the decision." Berghmans said his company is in Slovakia for the long term.
After five years in Brussels representing Slovak companies to EU institutions, Zoltvány has seen a marked change in the country's image. "When I came here, people knew a little bit about Slovakia. Today, though, there's a real practical interest because they can start projects and do business with us."
For Zoltvány, now is the moment to promote Slovakia: "The interest in Slovakia, and other new members, will probably disappear after a year. We must use this period to promote ourselves because if we miss the chance now, then we'll never have it again."
All agree that Slovakia's image has changed rapidly, and for the better, in Europe's business and political circles. Promoting Slovakia still entails much work in the area of explaining the differences and the similarities between Slovakia and the older European countries. A danger for the future may lie in normalisation, whereby Slovakia is potentially blended into a slot with Slovenia. After all, in many capitals around the world, Slovak and Slovenian embassy officials have gotten used to meeting regularly to exchange each other's misdirected post.
For more information on Europe in Miniature see: http://www.acec.sk
12. Jul 2004 at 0:00 | David Ferguson