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Sunday
Nov252007

A glimpse of what real victory looks like

I recently caught a glimpse of what victory will look like in this long struggle against radical extremism, and it didn't involve a trial or a corpse or a parade.

Actually, it's an advertisement you've probably already run across in the back pages of the Economist or Wall Street Journal. Its message is disarmingly simple: Invest in Macedonia.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "Macedonia? Isn't that one of those lousy Balkan countries we fought in a while back?"

The answer is, sort of.

The Balkan Wars (1991-2001) encompassed the break-up of Yugoslavia, which until that time constituted a federation of six republics. Three successive wars defined Yugoslavia's initial fracturing: Slovenia's secession in 1991, the 1991-95 Croatian war of independence, and the infamous Bosnian civil war of 1992-95.

Additional conflicts ensued among the Albanian populations of Kosovo (1997-99), southern Serbia (2000-01) and Macedonia (2001).

After the United Nations failed to stem the initial armed conflicts and incidences of genocide, U.S.-led NATO forces intervened twice in the second half of the 1990s, leaving behind peacekeepers who continue serving today - under UN auspices - in Kosovo, a Serbian province still seeking independence.

Of the six independent states to emerge - so far - from the ruins of Yugoslavia, Macedonia is arguably least well known internationally, in large part because it escaped mass bloodshed following its quiet departure in 1991.

Thanks to a continuing naming dispute with Greece, Macedonia is still formally known in global circles as the "former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," or FYROM - an awkward moniker befitting its centuries of living anonymously under other civilizations' great empires.

Having joined the United Nations in 1993, Macedonia seeks future membership in both NATO and the European Union, which named it a "candidate country" two years ago. Roughly the size of Vermont and landlocked amidst Albania, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, Macedonia offers little beyond its location as a major transportation corridor between larger economic players.

To that end, Macedonia, with the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development, made itself the first all-broadband wireless country of its size - or larger - in the world. The name of that USAID program, Macedonia Connects, is wonderfully symbolic of this small country's dogged determination to join the global economy.

So when I first came across those "Invest in Macedonia" ads, I couldn't help but think to myself that this is what victory would look like in places like Iraq and Afghanistan - not our victory but theirs.

The ad, appropriately enough, is one big sales job. Describing itself as the "new business heaven in Europe," the unspoken come-on in the ad seems to be, "if you can't afford Croatia any more, try us instead!"

Most impressively, the ad promises that investors can register their new company in four hours or less. Try matching that in your average developing country, and you'd be lucky to get your papers signed in four months!

As for investor benefit packages, which the ad declares "will be approved within 10 business days," try these on for size: no corporate tax for 10 years; 5 percent individual income tax for five years; free connections to gas, electricity, sewer and water; and concessionary land leases for up to 75 years.

All that for joining a free economic zone (FEZ) with "immediate access to main international airport, railroad and vital road corridors."

As an international businessman who focuses on infrastructure development, let me tell you, that sort of offer gets my attention, along with the fact that the World Bank's "Doing Business 2008" report just named Macedonia the fourth-best reforming economy in the world. China was ninth.

What I like about the ad is how shamelessly Macedonia sells its existing connectivity to attract even more: FEZs, transportation hubs and free trade agreements encompassing 650 million consumers.

Toss in cheap labor and nationwide wi-fi, and you've got yourself a country just itching to be "exploited."

And, yeah, that's what victory looks like for your average failed state: getting yourself off the front page and into the business advertising section.

One last image: The ad includes a map that delineates, in successive 500 kilometer rings, Macedonia's connective grasp across Europe. Think about that for a second: not the reach of Macedonia's missiles but its economic ambition.

Show me a similarly plausible "invest in Iraq" advertisement, and I'll be the first to light up your cigar.

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