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Swiss "too cautious" to try out Bulgaria

André Gribi (right) gives customers fondue tips in Chalet Suisse

(Chalet Suisse)

While some big Swiss companies have a presence in Bulgaria, Switzerland is more notable for its absence from this Balkan economy.

And Bulgarians are also staying away from Switzerland – the take up of short-term and yearly Swiss work permits for 2008 was well under the quotas allocated by the Federal Migration Office.

The debate surrounding the potential extension of the European Union labour accord to include Bulgaria and Romania may to some extent awaken Swiss interest in this country with its Black Sea coastline just two hours flight from Zurich.

This is the hope of the Swiss Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce (BSCC) whose role is to promote business links between the two countries.

"The Swiss are careful people and I appreciate that myself," president of the BSCC Kiril Drensky told swissinfo over coffee in the lobby of a Sofia hotel. Drensky was country manager for the Zurich-based engineering company ABB in Bulgaria for many years.

"But Bulgaria as an EU member is a great opportunity for Swiss investors, both as a production site and export market. Its location makes it an important bridge to Asia," Drensky said.

The Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) recently said that Bulgaria's membership of the EU would lead to an improvement in the business climate and opportunities for Swiss companies.

Although such firms together make up the 11th largest foreign presence in Bulgaria, a proportion of these companies are only Swiss in so far as they are Swiss registered.

Taste of Switzerland

Two Swiss entrepreneurs with ties to Bulgaria have recently brought something quintessentially Swiss to the people of Sofia – cheese fondue.

Hannes Rosenmund and André Gribi, along with Bulgarian partners, opened Chalet Suisse in December, a restaurant serving Swiss specialities and local dishes.

"Bulgarians like cheese," explained Rosenmund, country manager for the former national carrier, Swissair.

"I did fondue at home here so many times, inviting Bulgarians and everybody liked it. Some liked it so much we ended up bringing over the equipment and the cheese; now I don't have to do that any more," he joked.

Rosenmund knows Bulgaria well. After six years working there for Swissair in the 1990s, he came back and bought a travel agency for Bulgarians and expatriates travelling abroad. The restaurant is a combination of work and hobby for him.

Disappointed

The businessman expected more interest from Swiss companies after Bulgaria joined the EU in January 2007.

"I'm in a way disappointed in the Swiss. The small and medium-sized enterprises in Switzerland could have done much more in exploring Bulgaria. The Swiss presence is minimal compared to Austrians and Germans who are here in their thousands."

Gribi also has a restaurant in the Swiss city of Basel and works as a travel consultant in Bulgaria.

"If you have a good restaurant you can make more money here than back home. In Switzerland it is terribly difficult to make money."

Local knowledge

Those who do plan to come to Sofia will be put in touch with the managing director of the BSCC, Radoslav Varbanov.

"We provide a lot of contacts to the newcomer companies to help with administration and the authorities and to facilitate the setting-up process. We also introduce them to local partners; local knowledge is crucial in Bulgaria."

Despite his fondness for Bulgaria, Rosenmund is under no illusions regarding the country's drawbacks.

"The main problem in this country is that it is corrupt from the top down and this affects the sense of community. People know that what they pay in taxes will not necessarily go where it should and that makes it harder for the country to develop," he said.

swissinfo, Clare O'Dea in Sofia

Key facts

Swiss imports 2007: SFr112 million.
Swiss exports 2007: SFr296 million.
By end October 2008, Swiss exports up 23% on same period 2007.
Switzerland has the 11th foreign presence in Bulgaria.
Swiss-registered firms employ 6,000 people in Bulgaria.

Swiss firms in Bulgaria include: Nestlé, Novartis, Holcim, Oskar Rüegg and LGS.

end of infobox

In brief

Although the economic links between the two countries are not very significant at present, the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) underlines the "certain potential" that Bulgaria possesses due to the improvement in standard of living and its geographical proximity.

Trade between Switzerland and Bulgaria has tripled in the last decade.

Since 1992, Switzerland has supported Bulgaria through cooperation programmes, representing a total of SFr202 million ($174 million). This transition aid was linked to preparation for EU membership in 2007.

Swiss support should recommence soon. The government has committed to contributing SFr257 to support the EU enlargement to Romania and Bulgaria. Sofia will receive 30% of that sum – SFr76 million.

The Swiss contribution is awaiting parliamentary approval later this year. Following that the specific cooperation areas will be decided in agreement with the partner countries.

end of infobox

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