By Clifford Bond, Vice President for International Relations at AUBiH
The city of Baltimore in the state of Maryland may seem an unlikely venue for the first US-Balkans Business Summit held March 23-24, but as Bakir Izetbegovic explained in his keynote address to the investment conference, it seemed a natural choice to BiH. Maryland has been a longtime partner, having provided American military forces and leadership to SFOR and now working through its state National Guard to prepare the Bosnian Armed Forces for the Partnership for Peace and eventual NATO membership.
BiH fielded a strong team in Baltimore. In addition to a member of the Presidency, the delegation included the Foreign, Defense and Energy Ministers, the director of FIPA and business representatives from the finance, defense, construction and engineering sectors. BiH’s message at the conference was clear: the country is open for American business and investment. In common with other national delegations from Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia it promoted not only its national but also the western Balkan region’s advantages in terms of a central location, infrastructure and a trained and youthful workforce. This was a tangible display of regional cooperation. Belgrade’s unfortunate decision not to attend the summit, ostensibly because it objected to Kosovo’s participation, was noted and regretted by all.
BiH representatives were active in all the summit’s panels and discussion groups, but particularly in providing ideas on project finance and suggestions for defense, transportation and energy cooperation. BiH construction and engineering firms used the visit as an opportunity to brief State and Defense Department officials on their capabilities and interest in working with American counterparts on USG-funded infrastructure projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as BiH’s armed forces are contributing to peace and stabilization with their NATO partners in these countries. The state of Maryland, home to world class medical and research facilities, has agreed to extend cooperation with BiH in the field of health care.
Particularly satisfying to me was the summits discussion of education and the importance of investing in training the region’s next generation. Macedonia is developing into a leader on this score. It has doubled the budget resources devoted to education in recent years, is making the best university textbooks available to its students in translation and offering them a full scholarship if they are admitted to elite Western universities. The region should share its goal of offering universal English language instruction to secondary school students as a way of preparing them for European and global citizenship.
Tourism is a declared investment priority for region, and it certainly is a sector where these countries have a comparative advantage. U.S. participants were impressed by a presentation by National Geographic, America’s premier travel and nature society, on the beauties and potential of the region. I suggest readers view the presentation in a tourism supplement ”The Western Balkans: Land of Discovery” on the National Geographic’s website. It will inspire a little national pride, but it went a long way to dispel the out of date view among American businessmen of the region as a land of instability.
How to measure the success of this first summit? It would be naïve to do so in terms of contracts and deals signed. Charles Dillon, the President of the Balkans Business Alliance and the inspiration and organizer of the event, would be the first to admit this. American companies have been largely absent from this market for more than 20 years, and it will take time to learn more before they resume substantial trade and investment. The longer-term significance of the summit will come through building better business relationships, partnerships and confidence. Baltimore demonstrated to American companies that the countries of the region share a common European vocation and a readiness to set politics aside to build a better economic future. And the timing of the summit could not have been better, as the world and local economies are finally showing the signs of recovery from the “great recession.” This sort of initiative should be repeated in the Balkans and across the Atlantic.