Michael Polt: Separate the economy from the government

Michael Polt, the American Ambassador to Serbia, considers that the government should not directly rule the free, market economy, but to provide favourable conditions. Only the private sector accelerates economic development

Business and politics go together. However, when politics is connected with business „dirty business“ is what is usually had in mind, but it does not have to be that way. In a democracy what is meant by politics is the way democratic decisions are executed. There is the good, but also the bad politics. Good politics implies non interference into business. Let the private market function. Any government should stay away from business, because it is not capable of running the economy. The private sector runs the economy, and the government should only provide the enabling environment to allow the private market to function properly – this is how Michael Polt, the United States Ambassador, in the interview for Magazin Biznis, commented on the connection between politics and economy.

Although his name is most frequently being connected with the statements given on the occasion of important political events, Michael Polt says that his personal attitude and the goal of the embassy for which he works is – a focus on the economic issues and the economic well-being of Serbia. In two and a half years, which is the period of time he has lived in Serbia the journalists were interested in his opinion on every single important political decision. The ambassador himself admits that he cannot escape the issue of Kosovo or war crimes, but that he is making effort in his work to achieve the goal which he thinks brings well-being to the people of Serbia, and that is that the economy becomes a number one issue in this country.

Test on cigarettes

The signing of the CEFTA Agreement on the free trade zone was hindered by the agreement on tobacco. After no less than two months after its signing, “Philip Morris International” is very concerned about the competition from Croatia, which will, because of the lifting of duties, be able to offer cheaper cigarettes to the smokers here.
– I have had lots of conversations with the people from „Philip Morris“. They are very concerned. The CEFTA Agreement changed some of the conditions of doing business, but also some of the calculations that the company made about its investment and the return on its investment. I have nothing against that agreement, I consider that it is a good thing, but Philip Morris rightly expects that the commitments previously made by the Serbian government be kept and that a solution be found. If this does not happen, then a message of unpredictability is being sent to the foreign investors. This is an important test for the Serbian Government to show that the conditions of doing business are predictable here, for if it happened to Philip Morris what can a smaller company expect. I know that Minister Parivodić and other people in the government are working on the solution for this situation. 

– If you ask the Americans, for example, whether their personal problems are more important to them than the war in Iraq and the North Korea nuclear programme, each of them will answer that for them their family, their community, their well-being, their friends and work come first. The Serbs are not different. If you get involved into Serbian problems, you see that they too share the same goals and ambitions as everyone else – said Polt and added that he knew that people in Serbia both wanted and deserved a better life from the one they were living.

He is convinced that the Serbs are capable of improving the quality of their life, but that the politics is pulling them back. If the people, Polt points out, take care of economy and personal prosperity and of they know how to achieve that then the political leaders should concentrate on what is important for the people. Those are, Polt emphasizes, the most important elements of the democratic process.

– If the people say that the most important thing for them is economic progress, then the government also has to dedicate a great part of its time to it every day. To focus on one goal and to be talking about economic progress all the time. However, every day we hear the talk of Kosovo, on not meeting the obligations on war crimes, on various other kinds of political intrigues and machinations etc. I am not diminishing the importance of these issues, nor criticizing the government, but those issues come after the ones that the people expect to be solved and those are the economy, economic progress and integration into the European community. It is important not to hesitate. The best example of that is privatization. If you are oriented on fast progress of the economy then the government, the business sector and the people have to embrace the market economy wholeheartedly and without reservations. In other words, it should be a free market economy without a great involvement on the part of the government. The government should not be owning businesses, if should not be having a heavy hand in private businesses and privatization should move twice as fast as it is moving today – Michael Polt stated and added that it was undeniable that things were getting better, especially having in mind the situation in which the country was seven years ago.

His assessment is that in Serbia business is doing much better than it used to, but that it could be better. The world around us, judges Polt, is progressing very fast and it is not enough just to be fast, you have to be faster than others.

– The good characteristics of Serbian businessmen are invention, entrepreneurship, energy and flexibility. I have met many business persons, from individual workers to heads of companies who, even if you ask them to build you a hotel in two weeks answer in the positive. And you know that it is impossible, but that entrepreneurial spirit and will mean a lot. In that sense they are positive and similar to Americans. The negative angles are that businessmen are weighted down by corruption, which has its roots in the Milošević era. The reputation of the business sector is still such that the potential investor will say that they have to be careful if they want to do business here. The American Chamber of Commerce, the Foreign Investors’ Council and other organizations are working hard to lift the reputation of the business community – Polt pointed out and added that a lot of effort had to be made so that someone could say that doing business in Serbia was both good and clean.

An important prerequisite for foreign investors is, the American Ambassador considers, predictability. They want to know what they can expect in 5 or 10 years, how much trust they can have and what will happen if they, for example, invest 10 million dollars. They want to know when they can expect profit from that investment.

As an ambassador, the situation in which the Americans are buying Serbian products in their supermarkets does not seem unrealistic to him. That is possible to achieve, says Polt, if the producers meet the standards of quality. The second important thing is marketing.

„Kako da ne“

Michael Polt says that his favourite phrase in Serbian is: „kako da ne“. When that sentence is translated into English, he says, it does not mean anything, but here it has a great meaning. The ambassador also admits that his knowledge of Serbian is very poor, but that regardless of that he is from early morning swamped with Serbian press.
I follow the electronic media as well, but I need help with the translation. Sometimes, while I go through the papers I feel as if I were reading a fairy tale by the brothers Grim, some of the texts are entertaining, some are disgusting, but there are also realistic and good articles. I am noticing that the situation is slowly improving. Publications like yours are good because they make the economy interesting and exciting, but at the same time keep a serious approach and report the facts.

A Serbian fruit juice not only has to be of high quality but also to look good. The look is as important as the quality of the product, advised Polt. The two previous conditions do not mean much if the producers are not able to supply a continuous delivery of larger quantities of products. He also reminds of the golden rule of trade that the producer should be responsive to the needs of buyers and to what they want to buy.

– Things have changed a lot from the time of former Yugoslavia, which did good business and was successful in a very specific context. It was the freest country in a region that was not free compared to the countries behind „the iron curtain“ it could sell its products successfully. Now, on the free market, Serbian companies are competing with the Swiss, French, Austrian and German ones and it is much harder to be competitive in such a situation – Polt explains.

As the biggest economic problem Polt sees the old- fashioned way of thinking and pessimism. You have got to grab opportunities. The opportunity once missed is not coming around again. Many people are waiting to take over what you have missed while you were making all sorts of different excuses. Serbia can be a successful European story is you are focused on the right things. As he says, he insists on being an optimist when it comes to Serbian future.

– What makes me optimistic is not the policy, nor the scandal sheets that report all kinds of calamity, nor certain nationalist forces that keep talking about the victimization of Serbia through the ages, but the ordinary people in Serbia, regardless of whether they are young journalists, raspberry producers, farmers or computer programmers. You have got to free your life from those who want to live in the past and tell them, excuse me, but this is my future!

A. Nikolić
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