The last word: Throughout CEE, misperceptions often begin at home

If emerging Europe wants others to view the region in a different light, it would do well to take a look at the way it views itself.

One of the definitions of perception, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is a thought, belief, or opinion, often held by many people and based on appearances. Webster’s Dictionary defines perception as a mental image or concept, which is later described as something conceived in the mind or an abstract or generic idea generalised from particular instances.  

There are a few key expressions here — ‘mental images or concepts’, ‘based on appearances’ and ‘generalised from particular instances.’  

I don’t want to examine the provenance of these mental images, appearances or instances, but I’d love to share some interesting comments that I have heard over the last couple of years during projects related to site selection that we, at Emerging Europe, have completed. 

External misperceptions 

In March last year, I spoke to a senior representative of a tech company, based outside Europe but considering setting up a new delivery centre in the region. The gentleman said that even though he had always admired emerging European talent and Czechia would be his choice, a country in emerging Europe would be a hard sell — because of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Czechia’s proximity to the war zone — and as a result, the company would probably go to Portugal.  

The latter might have been a member of NATO exactly 50 years longer than Czechia, but NATO’s Article 5 applies in both cases, and if Russia invaded one of the Baltic States or Poland, both Czechia and Portugal would be at war.  

This past week, I had two conversations with C-level executives — one from the UK and the other one US-based — about the IT sector in Moldova. Neither of them knew anything about it and one of them wondered why all the countries around Moldova are so good at IT and Moldova is “a hole in the doughnut.” When I said that 4.4 per cent of Moldovans are employed in the IT sector, the second highest percentage of the entire workforce of any country in the region after Estonia, the executive’s eyes popped out. 

In the spring of last year, I spoke with a long-time friend of mine and a global business services and IT expert who told me that the “Ukrainian IT sector was dead,” following the invasion. I had to convince him how wrong he was, and it seems I was right — while Ukraine’s GDP plummeted by over 29 per cent last year, the country’s tech sector generated almost 7.5 billion US dollars in annual export revenues, five per cent more than in 2021. 

Internal misperceptions 

What is even more disturbing is that these fallacies, sometimes resulting from lower self-esteem and the desire to be slightly better than others, are quite common within emerging Europe itself. 

Some three years ago, a friend from Poland asked me if I wasn’t afraid of going to Belarus (this was still before the rigged presidential election of 2020). His question didn’t refer to politics (although I actually remember the rumours that the State Security Committee was interested in my activities in the country’s capital) but the state of infrastructure and availability of food. He was surprised when I showed him photos taken during my previous visits.  

I also remember a chat with a Slovenian academic who told me openly that he would happily go to the UK to deliver a lecture, even if he had to cover all possible costs related to that. But if he were to do the same in North Macedonia, he made it clear that he would require rock star treatment there. 

I often see the faces of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians when someone says their country is Eastern Europe. The first reaction is “we’re in Central Europe.” Scholars have argued about where the centre of Europe is for decades. Some say Lithuania, others say Belarus and yet others — Germany. As a person of Polish origin, I don’t think any of these matters. Poland and other countries around should be proud of their achievements over the last three decades, more in less time than anywhere else in Europe. 

Now, part of the work that our research team does in its site selection and location strategy is benchmarking. We look at a wide range of macroeconomic indicators, select several countries to benchmark a particular location against, and then investigate a specific area, for example the inflow of foreign direct investment or the development of a specific sector.  

We have had two instances when Albania happened to be one of the selected countries for benchmarking. Even though the economies that were to be benchmarked against Albania were less developed, the reaction that came when we made the suggestion was, to get to the point, “anything but Albania.” 

A colleague, originally from Ukraine, summarised this attitude very well recently. “Over the last few decades, we have looked towards Germany, the UK, America. We didn’t look at what lies in-between. And I don’t really think that has changed,” she said. 

What it will take to bring about this change is having an open mind and allowing ourselves to consider for one moment that we might be wrong.

You can download the Emerging Europe Business-Friendly City Perception Report for free, here.

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