DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Thank you very much for a really generous introduction. I appreciate that personally. I also appreciate personally that we have brought together the state where I’m proud to live, in Maryland, and the place where I’ve spent most of my professional life, working on Balkan issues. So the generosity of the Governor in hosting this and the State of Maryland (inaudible) in putting it together is most welcome to me personally. And of course welcome to our two Presidents, our two Deputy Prime Ministers, [inaudible]. It’s really an honor for me to be able to share the same stage with you.
This first U.S.-Balkans Business Summit will reinforce cooperation among the countries of South Central Europe, strengthen the economic and commercial ties between the United States and the region, and offer new opportunities for investment, export/import. I hope it will also enhance the focus on improving the rule of law in the region and will assist in helping these countries achieve their goals of integration into the Euro-Atlantic institutions -- NATO and the European Union.
It’s been more than 25 years since I began my career in the old Yugoslavia, and in that time the region has gone through incredibly tough times, has faced the most difficult existential questions that a society can face. Today these are young countries in South Central Europe and they are eager to make up for lost time, eager to make a mark on the world stage economically and politically. They are focused on the challenge of political and economic stability.
The United States is proud that over the last 20 years we have invested our development dollars. We have encouraged and supported the efforts of regional leaders to foster economic reform, to draw clearer lines between the public and the private economy, to establish the clear separation of the executive, the judicial, the legislative powers, to do what I would call building the civil infrastructure that a society needs in order to be economically successful. We have seen these countries respond with both an enthusiasm for reform and with genuine progress in attaining the kind of society, the kind of economy that attracts trade and investment.
Countries of South Central Europe today are open for business. Not just with their regional neighbors, and with the EU, but across the Atlantic as well. I hope that the last two speeches you heard made very clear that they are open for business with you, the American businessman, the American investor.
I’m impressed by the presence of all the countries that have been invited -- Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro. I’m disappointed that the Serbian government chose not to participate this year, choosing a political priority over an economic priority, but I know that the Serbian people and Serbian businessmen also want to be a part of this commercial engagement.
The basic logic is simple. Increased trade means increased jobs, and job creation, as you’ve heard our President say, is the first priority for our government as it is for so many of the governments represented here today.
Right now these countries are not among the largest trade partners of the United States, but this makes them, in fact, excellent targets for trade and investment by American companies. There is a huge opportunity for market penetration and growth in a region that has seen dynamic economic growth. Many of these countries continuing to grow, even in the last couple of years of worldwide setbacks. Companies from the region have to know that they have a huge potential to tap into, to sell to the American consumer market.
The business environment in South Central Europe has got a lot of features that I think most Americans would not know about that my staff pulled together, and a couple of them even I didn’t know about, but that are significant. To give you examples of how serious these countries are, it is possible in Macedonia to register a new business in less than a day. Kosovo today is the youngest country in Europe, not just in terms of its independence, but in the age of its population, and this year it’s the Chairman of the Central European Free Trade Agreement. Montenegro has a flat nine percent tax on corporate profits. Albania is a full member of NATO, and as the President [of Bosnia and Herzegovina] just mentioned, foreign direct investment gets a big encouragement from NATO membership. Slovenia has continued the dynamic growth both before its membership in the European Union and afterwards. With Croatia, Secretary Clinton signed just last month an Open Skies agreement between Croatia and the United States which opens the possibility of direct flights through Zagreb to the region. Bosnia is a market of almost four million people with a highly educated work force and the same dynamic potential.
What they have in common and what they share in terms of our vision for the region is first, that we wish to see those countries that wish to become part of NATO to become members as rapidly as possible -- Croatia, Albanian, Slovenia -- are already in this grouping.
Also I can say, and I think more explicitly than previous administrations, that the United States is committed to the European Union future of these countries. Membership in the European Union is not admission to an exclusive country club where there’s nothing but privileges. It is rather a process that requires hard work by each of these societies. Work that not only gives them the ultimate benefit of EU membership, but at the same time, internally, creates the social and economic dynamic that these countries need to achieve. Each reform in the EU process is its own reward. These countries deserve, they need to be, part of the European Union. They are part of Europe. They are European in their mentality, in their societies, in their political structures, and ideally they should be as reliable partners for American business as any country in the European Union. This is the goal. We’re pleased that Slovenia has already met and become a member of the EU. We’re excited that Croatia is on the doorstep of membership. And we can’t wait to see the other countries make the hard strategic decisions to follow them.
There have been great strides specifically in the business climate as these countries have sought to establish themselves as solid, dependable trade partners. We’re impressed by their progress, as I said proud of the contribution that we’ve made, that the American taxpayer through USAID has made. But more still needs to be done. We still need to see greater progress towards cooperation within the region among these countries. We need to see additional progress in building the rule of law, in ensuring that the judiciary, the police, and other legal institutions are not political instruments, but serve the independent interests of the people. There needs to be a fight against corruption, which is ongoing, but needs to be strengthened throughout the region. And we need to see greater institutional transparency in contracts and in decisions of governments.
These reforms of business climate improvements can be made, we believe. They will be necessary, and with the help of the European Union they will be permanent.
We would like to see a virtuous cycle created, one in which additional Western investment from both the United States and the European Union leads to a greater demand for transparency, for legal reliability, and in turn the reforms that each state makes on transparency, on the rule of law, attracts ever-greater investment. This is a demand and supply cycle that can only have benefits for the people of the region.
So I want to encourage all the governments represented here to continue to promote trade and investment, enforcing your laws, implementing the reforms that you have committed to, to protect investors in a legally predictable way, to protect intellectual property rights, to improve the transparency of procedures both in government procurement and in commercial disputes, and to enhance efforts to root out corruption.
There can be more done to simplify administrative and bureaucratic procedures for both your domestic businesses and for foreign partners. There can be more use made of technology. Again, I’d emphasize for my American friends here, this is a region with a solid educational base, ready to embrace new technologies and new skills.
We need to work together within the region in order to build those bridges across the Atlantic. And regional entrepreneurs need in each country increased availability and variety of financing mechanisms for small and medium enterprises. Again, I think every country here has got the message that the U.S. has learned a long time ago. Small and medium enterprises are the primary engine of economic growth in our countries.
For the businessmen who have come from the Balkans today, I want you not only to have an interest in the United States but to start doing business with the United States. Many of you already have established foreign trade partners in the U.S. and you can constantly broaden your focus from existing partners to those here in Baltimore, in Maryland, and across the country.
For American businessmen today, please take a hard look at the opportunity in South Central Europe. These countries have made tremendous, dramatic progress. They’re prepared to do business. They’re ready to deepen their trade relationships with the United States even as they are reaching for the European Union. They present markets that have great untapped potential. They can offer significant returns on increasingly stable investments.
This conference I hope will have a lot of multiplier effects. That is you will take back to your capitols not only the specific opportunities that you heard about, but the important issues that American businessmen want to know about your country, want to be reassured about your home as a place in which to do business.
We can expand markets, we can expand job creation in the United States, in South Central Europe, and above all, I think that we can reinforce a strong relationship that the United States has with each of these countries independently, but with the region as a whole.
This can be a vehicle to encourage you not only to work together, but to work internally to make these reforms.
Thanks for your attention. I see great potential. I see leaders who I know have had the vision to move their countries forward in the economic sphere. And I think you’ll find no better partners than American businessmen in your efforts.