Austrian Ambassador to Ukraine: Building on a Habsburg Heritage

  • Austrian Ambassador  to Ukraine:  Building on a  Habsburg Heritage
Issue 40, November 2011.

Austrian Ambassador to Ukraine Wolf Dietrich Heim recently visited Lviv in order to see for himself how Austria has managed to establish itself as the Number One international investor in West Ukraine, accounting for 37% of all international investment into the region. Appointed to represent Austria in Ukraine in summer 2010, Ambassador Heim spoke to Lviv Today about the Austrian investment situation in the region and shared his
thoughts on why Austrian companies have found such a warm welcome waiting for them in the former Habsburg heartlands of West Ukraine.

1. Did you visit Ukraine before coming to this country as ambassador?

I must admit that I had never been in Lviv, when I was assigned my function as Austrian Ambassador to Ukraine last year. With the wider region, however, I was familiar from many private and official visits since the early 1990ies. Two years ago I started to learn Ukrainian at the University of Vienna, where Ukrainian language courses are offered on a regular basis.

2. An ambassador should know as much as possible about the country he is posted to. What helped you most to learn more about Ukraine?

Preparing for my tasks as Austrian Ambassador was facilitated by the fact that I worked in Vienna before moving to Kyiv. At the University of Vienna we continue to have a strong interest and competence in history, linguistics, literature, politics, current affairs and other disciplines.
Of course, there are many other scientific institutes in Austria and beyond, colleagues and friends who introduced one or the other new aspect of modern Ukraine to me. I also had time to get inspiration in Brussels, other European capitals, in Canada und in the United States.
Ukraine is certainly an intriguing country, one never ceases to learn more about its history, about our common heritage, and undoubtedly about the challenges that we all face in Europe.

3. What are the most important sectors of economic cooperation between Ukraine and Austria?

The trade relations between our two countries are very typical for the respective economies. Austria exports mainly finished goods such as machinery, equipment, pharmaceuticals etc. to Ukraine whereas we import almost exclusively raw materials, such as iron ore, metals and wood from Ukraine. If you look at Austrian investments in Ukraine they focus very much on the financial sector, i.e. banks and insurance companies.

4. In your opinion, how could economic relations between the two countries – Ukraine and Austria – be strengthened?

I think that during the past 20 years a lot has been achieved. Thanks to courageous and far sighted business people on both sides trade volumes have multiplied and Austria has become one of the leading investors in Ukraine. We do believe that there is still ample room for our trade relations to develop. The adoption of the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union should also be a big improvement. Ukraine’s economy needs to diversify more into manufacturing and services to be better shielded from external shocks in raw materials and energy prices. Austrian technology and equipment can play a large role in that development process that could transform Western Ukraine into a manufacturing powerhouse similar to areas in Poland, Hungary or Slovakia. Consequently we also put our money where our mouth is and the commercial section of our embassy in Kyiv maintains an ADVANTAGE AUSTRIA trade promotion office in Lviv to further improve trade relations between Austria and Western Ukraine. Of course an improved and stable business climate is an absolute prerequisite for any business driven development.

5. How do you account for Austria's leading position among international investors in West Ukraine?

Austria has a leading role in many of Eastern Europe’s economies. Starting with the fall of the iron curtain, in many cases even before that, Austrian businesses were quick to realise the great potential to be found in this area. Western Ukraine is the first geographical region that lies beyond the extended home markets of Hungary, Slovakia and Poland which explains why so many of Austrian business activities in Ukraine are focused here. Also, business is always done by humans. So mentality, culture and history play an important part in business decisions too. When Austrians come to Western Ukraine they see and feel the shared history and values which have clearly left a mark on the region.

6. Foreign investors show some interest in the development of the tourist infrastructure in the Western Ukraine. Do you happen to know whether any Austrian investors show any interest in this region considering upcoming EURO 2012 potential? (or the Olympic Winter Games 2022?)

Austria is a world famous tourism destination, so naturally Austrian companies have laid their eyes on Western Ukraine’s tourism potential. I believe that the EURO 2012 will be paving the way for further development in this sector. Many people will come to Lviv for the first time and experience a modern and open city with a wonderful area around it next year. This will create further demand do develop hidden treasures such as the Golden Horseshoe of castles. Naturally there is a lot Austria can offer in anything that is connected to winter sports. Austrian companies are already actively involved in preparing Ukraine’s bid for the Olympic Winter Games 2022 and in the development of various skiing resorts.

7. What would you recommend to take the Lviv city authorities to attract even more Austrian investors?

First of all, the majority of issues that foreign investors are worried about in Ukraine concern the national level and are hard to influence on a local level. However there are a number of rules and regulations the city authorities are responsible for, such as building permits, communal infrastructure and a host of other things. It is never bad to check existing rules for their present relevance and keep things as simple as possible. Of course one thing every investor does require is a level playing field for all participants and an open and transparent administration, which can be held accountable for its actions.

8. What is happening in the areas of culture, science and education exchange? How do you see Ukraine's future?

Our Lviv based Austrian office for science and education has been located at the main building of Ivan Franko University now for 13 years. It supports academic cooperation all over Ukraine and students with information about grants, scholarships and summer schools in Austria. This small but very active academic exchange office works as an information point for students, university teachers and scientists from both our countries and it tries to initiate long term partnerships and to support academic mobility. The Austrian office for science and education is also responsible for cultural activities in the western part of Ukraine. In the last years we have organized a series of different cultural events like classical concerts, theatre performances and various exhibitions with our Ukrainian partners. Conferences and publishing projects on literature, cultural heritage and different historical topics have and will continue be our priority in the years to come. With our cultural activities we try to show Ukrainian youth that they are an integral part of a modern and open Europe and through different initiatives in culture and science we see that we can learn a lot from each other.

9. Austrian architectural style is very striking in Lviv, which once was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Have you seen anything in Lviv that reminded you very vividly of Austria?

Austrian architecture is to be found in many important locations in Lviv. Most striking are the university buildings, the seat of the Regional Parliament and the Governeurs administration. There are several school buildings, theaters, private houses and military facilities from the 18th and 19th century, most of them in a remarkable condition. Some buildings have been converted over the years for other purposes, like the building of the Austrian chamber of Commerce which today houses the Procurator General’s office.
Of course, art noveau buildings like the Hotel "George" which was built by the well known Austrian architects Hellmer and Fellner, are often identified as genuinely Austrian, as much as a lot of other buildings in the historical center of Lviv. Ecclesiastical architecture like the Dominican Church, St. George`s or Andrews Church are picturesque examples for Austrian history and baroque architecture in Lviv.
What I enjoy most in Lviv, when arriving from Kyiv or eastern Ukraine, is the wide range of newly opened, small and very cosy Cafés in the very center of Lviv. They remind me of the Austrian way of life. I look forward to the days when international newspapers will be available in the cafes just like in Vienna.

10. Is our city attractive to the Austrians, as a tourist destination?

The growing number of tourists in Lviv is proof of its attractiveness. I expect a good number of Austrian fans at the soccer match on November 15, and a continuously growing interest with a wider Austrian public thereafter. Many Austrians have been to Lviv and have enjoyed its rich heritage and lively atmosphere; most of them love to return.