On Sunday the 10th anniversary Baltic Development Forum will be opened by the Prime Minister of Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. It is symbolic that we are back where it once began, here in Copenhagen.
Ten years ago, the BDF was founded to create a forum for informal exchange of ideas in order to address the challenges of the 1990’s – the political transformation of Eastern Europe. And now, we will gather here once again with yet a new revolutionary turmoil on the agenda – the global financial crisis. Just as in the 1990’s, our belief in the common case will be tested by the harsh realities of the new international environment.
Let me briefly recapitulate how it once began: In the early spring of 1998 a group of people came together and founded the Baltic Development Forum. It was some six years after the final collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia and the Baltic Countries were in a pretty bad shape. EU-enlargement was still a distant dream. But we all believed in the potential of the Baltic Sea Region. In the distant past it had been a region of growth and affluence – and we believed that if all the barriers to free movement of people, ideas, goods, capital etc. could be dismantled we might see a repetition of that. What we wanted to create was a network of movers that could make that happen.
The idea to organize the first Baltic Summit was inspired by the success of the World Economic Forum. In the Baltic Sea Region we had already a regional organization – the Council of Baltic Sea States – where the governments cooperated in all the areas where regional solutions were necessary. But we needed to create a platform where the business community and the academia played together with the political decision takers – just as we had seen it at the annual Davos meetings.
The first Baltic Summit took place in Copenhagen with 3-400 participants from all over the region. Among the speakers were veterans in the quest for Baltic development: Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Lennart Meri, Peter Wallenberg, Zbigniev Brzezinski just to mention a few – as well as heads of governments and of major business from all over the region.
The idea stuck. In the following years we had annual Summits in St. Petersburg, Riga, Stockholm, Hamburg, Helsinki, Tallinn – and this year we have our tenth Baltic Summit in the “capital” of the Öresund Region: Copenhagen/Malmö.
Our network organization has grown – in size and in influence. We have a permanent secretariat in Copenhagen, manned by young dedicated people from the region, mastering between them all the different languages spoken here. We have a solid base of faithful members and supporters of the Forum – and we have a group of partners and sponsors that makes all this possible. And we have established a close relationship to the EU, that is now preparing a special strategy for our region. Between the annual summits we have many activities devoted to the promotion of the original idea – to tear down all barriers that prevent our region from using its full potential. And as a guide to that work we have overseen the publishing of the annual State of the Region Report.
This year our summit is held under the shadow of the international financial and economic crisis that has hit our region very hard. We had perhaps become too complacent witnessing very high growth rates and success stories all around the Baltic Sea. Now our belief in the common case will be tested by the harsh realities of the new international environment. Can our region pass the test? I think so. And if you hesitate to share that optimism – just try to think back ten years: Who would at that time have believed that we could get to where we are today? Of course it is possible to get back to a positive trend – if we are willing to work together on this goal.