At times, Austrians can sound like masters of understatement, integrating the words “our small country…” into every second sentence. Well, even geographically, the country is not actually that small. As you get to know Austria better, you will also see in these people a history, culture and heart that is bigger than life itself. In terms of cooperation with Ukraine, Austria is already a major partner. In terms of mutual opportunities and shared interests, it is a giant.
Sometimes it seems to me as if God created Austria out of a huge Lego set: mountains and lakes, forests and fields, cities and villages - everything is built with love, and for some reason it all fits together, right down to the smallest detail. Blessed by nature in so many ways, hardworking Austrians have made much more of their good fortune. Ukrainians are hardworking too. Their country has the same natural wealth, and they also want to make more out of it! Making more out of what we already have is what today’s Ukraine is all about. It is a desire to break away from the sad routine of our history. Making a bet on a new winner, the European project.
Ukraine is hungry for success and ready to roll up its collective sleeves to reach it. Austria, in turn, has already arrived. It is a success in virtually every possible way, but continues to reach out in search of new horizons. This makes our two countries a good match. Ukraine can become Austria’s new horizon. Together with our geographic proximity, common history, and dedication to Europe, we share common interests. Did you know that Austria’s nickname in West Ukraine is “Grandma Austria”?
For almost 30 years, Ukraine has supplied Austria’s Voest Alpine, one of Europe’s largest producers of premium steel, primarily supplying German car producers. These steel products rely on iron ore pellets produced by Poltavski GZK. This means that most German-made cars, with the help of Austria, actually originate from the Ukrainian town of Gorishni Plavni, where these ore pellets come from. Just think about it. Thirty years of cooperation. Despite changes in governments and even epochs. This cooperation is worth up to EUR 750 million per year.
Another striking success story: Austrian investments in the insurance business in Ukraine. Two Austrian companies currently dominate the market: Uniqa and Vienna Insurance Group. Like two Kenyan runners leading an Olympic marathon, they switch places at the top of the field, with premiums constantly growing, year after year, decade after decade.
The same goes for the banking and financial sectors, where Raiffeisen Aval has weathered all the storms of the last decades and always landed on its feet. When I arrived in Austria in late 2014, Raiffeisen was suffering from the loss of many branches in the wake of the Russian occupation. “Too bad we didn’t sell the Ukrainian part of our business when we had the opportunity,” the leadership sighed. Two years later, they do not sigh anymore. They say Ukraine has successfully turned the corner and, “we wish we had the same numbers as we have in Ukraine in other countries.” Banking is just the beginning. You can see success stories across the board. Fischer Sports in Mukacheve (did you know that most of the world-famous Austrian Fischer skis are made in Ukraine?), Agrana Fruit in Vinnytsya (not one, but two major plants supplying Europe with bio juices), the recently opened “Beehive” honey plant near Cherkasy, and many more. Did you know that Ukraine is Europe’s number one producer of ironing boards and one of the leaders in the windsurfing board market? Yes, this is an Austrian investment too, by Nils and Tobias Grolitsch, two brothers from Carinthia who just out of curiosity stopped by in Ukraine in the early 2000s and stayed for good.
Ukraine abounds with opportunities, both big and small. Austria knows it. Austria was among the first to believe in Ukraine. This has been the case ever since 1991, when Ukraine regained its sovereignty. It has not always been plain sailing. Every time there was optimism, there was also disappointment. This makes Austrian investors extra cautious. They know both the potential and the pitfalls of Ukraine, including corruption and bureaucracy. It is up to Ukraine to prove that things are now different. The time for investment has come.
Why now? What is different this time? Well, a number of factors. Reforms are kicking in. In the last couple of years, Ukraine underwent major structural changes in the fields of taxation, state procurement, banking, and energy. Massive reform of the justice sector is about to change the functions and perception of the court system in the country. Many new people have entered government. They themselves expect results.
With its world-famous fertile black soil, Ukraine is already a leading global player in the agro-market. With the relevant technologies and investments it can easily double, triple, or even quadruple the country’s current agricultural output. This is only one segment of the economy. Ukraine can feed the world. It can provide new momentum to the European economy. Just look at the map.
Today’s Ukraine has more access to Europe than ever before in the form of the EU Association Agreement. Perhaps even more importantly, Europe has even more leverage on Ukraine than ever in the form of the same agreement. Civil society is making itself felt and the Ukrainian economy is on the rebound. Trade with Austria grew by around 15% in the first half of 2017. This is an indication of the progress underway in Ukraine. Austria will remain a strong partner as the country moves closer to Europe and develops deeper economic ties.