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Georgia: Attracting Foreign Investment Is Serious Business

Georgia saw $500 million in foreign investments in 2004, the year the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was launched (RFE/RL) A conference was held on March 2-4 in New York City with the purpose of attracting foreign investors to the South Caucasus republic of Georgia. Supporters say Georgia has much to offer potential investors in the areas of energy, transport, communications, and banking. Georgian officials hope 2006 will bring close to $500 million in foreign direct investment.

NEW YORK, March 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- John Waters is vice president of American-owned Cascade Capital Holdings, which until recently has focused its investment in energy, construction, and media projects in Armenia.

But now Cascade Capital is setting its sights on Georgia. The firm paid some $5 million in December 2005 to purchase the country's Emporiki Bank from its previous Greek owner.

Waters tells RFE/RL that 80 percent of Armenia's international trade passes through Georgia, and it simply made sense for Cascade Capital to set down roots there as well.

"Georgia is doing a great job of opening up its economy and its government and its future to integrating with Europe and more intense democratic standards," Waters says. "We want to see Armenia tied as closely as it can be to Georgia for purposes of trade, for purposes of transport, and others."

Testing Georgia's Business Climate

The conference's Georgian and American hosts had hoped to attract as many as 200 potential investors to the three-day event.

Georgian government officials appeared at times to outnumber curious entrepreneurs at the conference. But some participants said they had already ventured into Georgian investment, and found the business climate to be promising.

Raymond Davis is the president of HealthMax International, an Internet health-advisory enterprise that is now looking to expand into the traditional medicine and drug trade in Georgia. He says his investment this year will be relatively modest -- no more than $1 million -- but may grow to $5 million in the next two to three years.

'There's a little problem with the attitude of the people... We're very driven here [in the United States], and over there they have, let's say, a more balanced life. They don't see the urgency for finishing things at a certain time.'

Looking for investment opportunities in the former Soviet Union, Davis said, his company focused on Georgia and Ukraine -- countries where the so-called "colored revolutions" had created more favorable business conditions.

But even Georgia, with its numerous regional conflicts and uneasy relations with Russia, continues to prevent challenges to outside investors. For now, Davis says, HealthMax has limited its operations to the capital Tbilisi.

"Stability issues are important to us. With the Republic of Georgia, you can see that they're fighting to get the stability that they want, and there are certain regions that we will be avoiding until the situation with Russia settles down a little more," Davis says. "But there seems to be -- for example, in the capital Tbilisi, and that's where we're going into to start with -- this vibrancy and stability that [allow] for us to start that process."

Slow Start, Many Challenges

Georgian officials have said they hope initiatives like the New York conference will bring in a half-billion dollars in foreign direct investment this year. Georgia saw that level of investment once before -- in 2004, the year the massive Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project was launched.

But investment in Georgia is a slow process, often hampered by basic shortcomings in infrastructure.

James Muir, the president of Muir Marketing Communications, is currently consulting an American firm working to improve the efficiency of Georgia's electricity-bill collection.

"The reason electricity doesn't work in Georgia is because it's a very old, Soviet system, and all the duplicate parts have been stolen, and it's just deteriorating all the time," says Muir. "The only way to have good electricity in the regions, outside Tbilisi, is to replace it. The only way to replace it is to get investment. The only way to get someone to invest in it is to westernize it -- have good collections, have good accounting systems."

A Diference In Attitudes

Muir says another problem in doing business in Georgia -- as well as in many former Soviet countries -- is the sometimes lackadaisical outlook of its workforce.

"There's a little problem with the attitude of the people. In a place like New York, people are living to work, let's say. And over there, people are working to live," says Muir. "Their priorities are not the same, a deadline is not the same thing. We're very driven here [in the United States], and over there they have, let's say, a more balanced life. They don't see the urgency for finishing things at a certain time. And if one of your suppliers sees the urgency, perhaps the other one doesn't see the urgency."

The Georgia investment conference in New York is the latest in a string of similar events aimed to promote opportunities for American investors in the countries from the former communist Europe.

Past investment gatherings have focused on Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania.