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Foreign Ministry Sees Huge Untapped Potential in Balkans

Ljubljana, 07 June (STA) - Western Balkans coordinator at the Foreign Ministry Vojko Volk has pointed for the STA to what he sees as a sea of unused opportunities for Slovenian companies on the markets of the former common country. He believes the construction sector would have been much better off today had it invested in the region in time.

A number of large Slovenian companies reaped enormous benefits from investing into Balkan markets in time. "If Slovenian builders had invested into the Balkans soon enough, they would have suffered far less damage than they did now," Volk is convinced.

He said that many efforts had been launched to secure this "but unfortunately not much was achieved", also because Slovenian construction companies had not been active enough, believing that there was enough work available at home.

"It now turned out that the work at home is gone, that the sector is too big for Slovenia, while the markets where they could be operating are practically in waiting mode," Volk was critical.

According to him, the Balkan markets provide an excellent counterbalance for the Slovenian economy. "This means that we can export twice as much to the Balkans than we import and thereby offset the effects on the markets where our imports exceed exports."

"This is a very simple formula, the logic is ruthless and we respect it," Volk noted, adding that these effects are multiplied two or three times during an economic crisis "in a positive sense".

According to him, seeing "the space which once lived together" reconnected is a vital interest of Slovenia. Like every other country, Slovenia will benefit from a reunited Balkans, also because it is among the most developed countries in the region and already has a strong economic foothold there.

Elaborating on the new guidelines for the Western Balkans, adopted by the government in March, Volk said that Slovenia will first focus on setting up infrastructure - roads, railways, telecommunication. Energy flow will follow in the second phase.

The official also sees opportunities in food production and processing. He said that arable land was scarce in Slovenia, while it was plentiful in the Balkans.

"We will improve transport connections and then it will only be a matter of deciding. Why wouldn't we grow maize and wheat in Kosovo or Macedonia," Volk said.

He believes that Slovenia's problems in the Western Balkans - mostly related to succession to the former Yugoslavia - are negligible when compared to the advantages, such as knowing the companies in the region and the people leading them. "This is invaluable and irreplaceable."

Volk is confident that Slovenia has not squandered these advantages and that its recent efforts regarding the EU's attitude to the region are earning a lot of praise there. Slovenia is extremely popular in Macedonia for instance, he said.

He explained that the new guidelines should secure a better coordination of already existing individual activities. This means among other things that small Slovenian companies should be able to join the bigger ones in their foray onto Western Balkan markets.

Also, the arrangement needs to get more balanced. "We cannot only take from the Western Balkans, but also invest - not only financially, but politically and morally as well."

In concrete terms, this for instance means encouraging scholarship programmes for students from the region, free studies for them in Slovenia and the elimination of obstacles for recognition of foreign diplomas.

Slovenia has been able to triple the number of such scholarship to 150 and is contributing between EUR 3m and EUR 4m a year, he explained.

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