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East: EBRD Officials Gather In Bucharest To Mark 2001 Successes

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development holds its annual meeting this weekend in the Romanian capital, Bucharest. Last year was widely viewed as a good year for the bank, and officials and shareholders are likely to use the meeting as cause for celebration. RFE/RL's Mark Baker is in Bucharest for the gathering and filed this report on what is likely to be discussed.

Bucharest, 17 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The mood at this weekend's annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will be far cheerier than in previous years.

The London-based EBRD is coming off an excellent year in terms of new financial commitments, after enduring nearly a decade of criticism that its services are not needed and in some case are even counterproductive.

The bank last year increased the amount of new commitments for loans and investments by 30 percent to 3.65 billion euros ($3.5 billion). The bank increased the amount of money it actually handed out to customers by 70 percent, to 2.75 billion euros.

The chief executive of the German section of the bank, Norbert Radermacher, says officials and shareholders will use at least part of the meeting to congratulate themselves on their achievements.

"We will look back on this, I think, very successful year of 2001. All the governors will pay tribute to what the bank achieved last year."

Radermacher says this success is particularly noteworthy in view of the world economic slowdown of the past two years. He says that, more than ever, investors in transition countries were looking for international partners like the EBRD with whom to share the risks.

"Everybody felt the EBRD could make a difference and that our financial services were needed even more than years before because of the ongoing uncertainty in the world and that people want to share risks. They wanted to have investors and financiers [who] had a lot of experience."

This follows past criticism that the bank -- because it has been relatively slow in lending -- has been irrelevant in leading the transition process in Eastern Europe. It also follows the disastrous period after the Russian economic collapse in 1998, when the bank lost millions of dollars in failed investments.

Radermacher says the bank's 60 shareholders -- which include the United States, the European Union and the 27 target countries -- also will use the meeting to stress the importance of economic and political reform. He places emphasis on democratic reforms.

"Sustainable development means openness, also readiness to introduce democratic measures. [Those] are key for the countries to sustain progress in the region."

The EBRD states clearly in its charter that it will only lend to regimes that are democratic and that respond to the will of their peoples. It's the only regional development bank in the world that has made the promotion of democracy one of its aims.

The bank has already suspended activities in autocratic Turkmenistan and has been prodding governments in other Central Asian countries to more fully democratize.

Noreen Doyle, the bank's first vice president, says countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus are competing with other developing regions in the world for foreign investment. These include fast-growing areas in Latin America and Asia.

Doyle says EBRD countries will have to improve their political and economic infrastructures if they hope to compete successfully. She points out that companies in general are reducing the amount of money they invest in developing economies because of recent bad experiences in Latin America and the general economic slowdown.

"The second theme [of the meeting] will be attracting foreign direct investment into some of the less-advanced countries in a way that will help their economic development at a time when there have been some bad experiences in Latin America. Most companies, because of the economic slowdown of the last couple of years, are re-examining their capital investment programs, their strategic priorities."

The EBRD annual meetings traditionally draw Europe's top bankers. Activities begin on 18 May with country and thematic presentations. The official portion of the meeting starts the following day and ends on 20 March.

The EBRD was established in 1991 to help the former communist countries make the transition to democracy and market-based economies. It's the largest single investor in the region. The U.S. is the bank's largest individual shareholder.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.