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Belarus: Leaders Make Push For Investment At Crans-Montana

Crans-Montana, 27 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus is making a major effort at an international business conference in Switzerland this week to overcome criticism of its human rights record and attract investment.

Around 1,000 U.S., European, Middle East, Asian and South African businessmen are attending the annual conference in the Swiss mountain resort of Crans-Montana. Between them they represent millions of dollars in potential investment in almost any industry from oil exploration to the development of shoe and furniture factories.

Belarus has responded by sending a strong delegation led by Prime Minister Syargei Ling and other politicians but with the real weight being carried by the 47 business experts. It is by far the strongest delegation at the conference.

They include companies in machine building, container transports, metal products, petroleum and chemical production, furniture, glass manufacture, farm tractors and other agricultural machinery, women's underwear, production nof cardboard boxes and the manufacture of sweets and confectionary. They have very busy in lobbying western businessmen. As a U.S. industrialist said today: "wherever you look, there is a Belarus businessman sitting down with a potential investor trying to talk him into loosening his wallet."

The Belarus delegation also took the unusual step of arranging a live television address to the conference by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. It is the only country which has done so.

In addition, Belarus has flooded the conference tables with glossy brochures and pamphlets stressing what the country has to offer investors.

Prime Minister Ling and his economics minister Uladzimir Shymau have made clear in their speeches to various forums at the conference that they are not trying to pretend that Belarus is a kind of Disneyland where everything goes well. The Prime Minister said in a speech to the main conference today: "we still have many problems to overcome" and proceeded to list many of them.

Some were caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union but he also listed others. Among them he mentioned the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, poining out that many did not realise that around 70 per cent of the fallout was on Belarus. He said the economic and financial consequences for Belarus had been enormous, particularly at a time when it was in any case suffering grave economic problems.

But in his speech today, Ling told the international businessmen there were now signs of a light at the end of the tunnel. "to be sure, its a very faint light," he said, "but its there and we believe it will grow stronger through the rest of the year." For the first time there is a slight increase in the GDP. This year shows a 12.6 per cent increase in industrial production and a six per cent increase in agricultural production.There is no budget deficit.

He said 2,000 enterprises had already been privatised and most small enterprises should be privatised by the end of the year. About 34 per cent of industrial production was now in the hands of private companies.The Prime Minister told the businessmen to ignore reports that Belarus wanted to wipe out the private sector. "its not true," he said.

He listed tax incentives and other benefits for investors and joint ventures and said Belarus would not offer less than its neighbours. He said Belarus could not offer less than Poland or Lithuania or the investors would go to those countries.

One of the big points made by Prime Minister Ling and the businessmen is the new union with Russia. They argue that the customs union with Russia and another customs union with Kazakhstan and Kyrgistan offers investors a big market with many opportunities.

The human rights questions still come up in Crans-Montana, as President Lukashenka discovered today when he was questioned during his television appearance. But the businessmen are pushing hard in their own sphere.