SME insider

Belgian business magazine – Stories told from the inside.

 

Flemish entrepreneurs in Ukraine about the 'fertile climate' of a ravaged state

 

Luc Vancraen, Anton Praet and Kris Beckers

 

The ominous storm cloud that has been hanging over Ukraine for months is not going to give way for the time being. But even after the heaviest rain comes sunshine. Three Flemish entrepreneurs talk about the rich past and the positive perspective of their second home country.

 

Looking ahead with anticipation

Coincidentally, we meet on May 9, a symbolic date that has been set aside for weeks for an apocalyptic announcement by Putin. Just before the start of an intriguing interview, the latter surprised with a rather moderate plea. The world was treated to a ray of hope, and that optimistic point of view became the guiding principle in an engaging chat.

 

A diverse triumvirate with a unified vision

Anton, Luc and Kris may have different backgrounds, but they share a professional passion for Ukraine: with their hearts and minds they see a future in and for the badly troubled country. What's more, they are working together on a Belgian-Ukrainian business club that highlights Ukrainian opportunities, tries to strengthen the dialogue between the business community and the authorities of both countries and offers potential members the opportunity to network at a high level. The three gentlemen are closely monitoring the situation and will launch with the club next month: more than ever it is necessary to inform and act on people. In any case, Ukraine is brimming with entrepreneurial opportunities and after the war the fledgling democracy will be more open than ever to friendly foreign 'industry'. As an 'office farmer', Anton Praet heads the Belgian holding company Ukraina Agri Fund, an arable farm with 1700 hectares. Luc Vancraen is in charge of IT company Quadrox. Kris Beckers is honorary consul of Ukraine in Limburg, representative of the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and focuses his professional efforts on Ukraine: Kris is selling his fruit company in order to focus his undivided attention on a number of business projects in Ukraine.

 

Belgian activity in Ukraine: a surprising history

 

Before examining the future, the three dinner companions look in the rear-view mirror: after all, it is essential to know the past in order to understand the present. Anton and Luc, who arrived a little earlier, point to the far-reaching Belgian

Past involvement: "Ukraine was once called the tenth province of Belgium: Belgium was one of the main investors in eastern and southern Ukraine at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. More than 80 Belgian factories and up to 30,000 Belgians have actively participated in the modernization of the Donbas, with activities in mining, metallurgy, chemicals and machinery. For example, the Kiev funicular was made by a company in Belgian hands and the neighbouring street is still called Belgicastate. A well-known Belgian name is Solvay, which started working in Ukraine in 1892. That bilateral involvement has bled to death for decades, but there is a multitude of opportunities, including for SMEs."

 

A painful precedent: Stalin as a terrible example

 

You can take that bleeding almost literally. In the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1932 and 1933, millions of inhabitants died as a result of the Holodomor, the starvation genocide carried out by Stalin as a repression against the refusal of Ukrainian peasants to give up their freedom and their prosperity in order to finance his five-year industrial plan in state farms. Antoon: "Even ninety years ago, resistance against Eastern oppression was immense. With the scorched earth tactics, Stalin plunged the country into the abyss. Unfortunately, the parallels are prominent: Putin is unable to occupy Ukraine or but by taking strategic pillars, he wants to squeeze his “threatening” neighbor to death" Luc adds: "That is precisely why it is necessary to counter that Eastern disaster with Western means. 'With a little hen from our friends' is not the appropriate soundtrack for this war film: Ukraine needs total dedication to ensure that the 'clash' between dictatorship and democracy does not become a 'crash' for the latter.

 

Standing in the scaffolding: work in progress after two disruptive decades

 

Democracy is still in its infancy, however. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was in a state of dissolution. Anton testifies: "When I first arrived in Ukraine shortly after the fall, the situation was dire: the shops were empty, and the country did not even have its own currency. But even at that low point, the situation was not hopeless. In terms of agricultural opportunities, the potential was clear." Luc also remembers a recruitment in a dark auditorium, where fortunately the candidates present turned out to be 'big lights'. What followed were two decades in which Ukraine made early attempts to build its own identity. During that change of course, the engine often stalled due to persistent corruption and direct and indirect adjustments by the Russian giant. With national consciousness, the resistance against the nosy neighbour grew steadily. The ouster of Putin's President Yanukovych during the Revolution of Dignity and the aggressive Russian response to this, including the annexation of Crimea, have strained relations between neighbours. Now that Russia had disappeared as the most important trading partner, the country was obliged to adopt a different approach: it turned its head to the west, and otherwise turned out to be better. Necessity became a virtue and Ukraine embraced democracy and the free market with genuine conviction. Kris sees the cause of the Russian resentment there: "Putin cannot bear that his 'modest' neighbour is doing better as a young democracy than his own 'great empire'. Ukraine is a real democracy, where the opposition, unlike Russia, is not in prison but in parliament. The 'enemy at the gates story' that he puts up rattles on all sides. It is true that Ukraine is systematically investing in its military after the Russian invasion. That should come as no surprise: at the time of the invasion of 2014, that 'army' was undermanned and under-armed. The pro-Russian movement is also very small: in the last elections, the party received barely 10% of the vote. Luc makes a thought-provoking comparison: "Of course there are people who dream of joining a great Russian Empire. Almost ninety years ago, people in these regions talked aloud about a large German Empire... The fact is that Zelenskyy did not "It was during a conflict with Russia. On the contrary: he was elected on a program that advocated peace with Russia. He has also changed a lot in a positive sense: digitization makes corruption much more difficult and provides a robust rule of law."

 

A turning point as a catalyst: the forward-looking transition in and acceleration

 

Destructive events - with wars at their horrific low point, often generate constructive opportunities. World War II marked the low point in human history, but also marked the definitive breakthrough of penicillin, which has already saved many more lives than this catastrophic conflict cost. Luc: "Zelenskyy has managed to get a whole nation behind him with his intrepid performance. That support gives him the freedom to move from the velvet gloves to the rough brush and get rid of unreliable oligarchs and fraudsters. Don't go wrong either. to his 'background': he is much more Gert Verhulst than Philippe Geubels and he took the term show business literally!

Kris fervently hopes that the conflict will soon calm down and that the successful cooperation with Western Europe will gain momentum. "Ukraine's potential is immense. The country has enormous economic and cultural potential. Bilateral trade between the EU and Ukraine has been growing steadily since a comprehensive free trade agreement came into effect in 2016. Ukraine is an interesting investment opportunity with a highly skilled and productive workforce, and high availability of agricultural land and industrial parks, with a low-cost production platform and attractive entry costs. Its central location in Europe makes it a trade hub for the EU, the Middle East and Asia. A multitude of opportunities, therefore, that with geopolitical tranquillity and European economic impetus Ukraine mirrors its neighbour and guide country Poland, which has emerged as a strong power in the European fold Ukraine already has reliable ties with the EU, and the structural support and cooperation that comes with membership would allow the definitive breakthrough. That accession to the EU would can get there very quickly. Ukraine is a requesting party and the EU wins: as a strong state, Ukraine is a future-proof interpretation for the 'gap' left by Brexit." Anton ends with a warm appeal to all entrepreneurs and the readers of this magazine in particular: "Ukraine needs substantial outside support. With their resilient and agile hands-on mentality, SMEs are excellent partners to help build a successful strategy for Ukraine. And it goes without saying that investing also rhymes with yielding: in the breadbasket of Europe there is more than a grain to pick up."