Md. agriculture official sees opportunity in Soviet Union

One on one

November 18, 1991

One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders. Robert Walker recently was sworn in as Maryland's Secretary of Agriculture and has been active in promoting trade between Maryland and the Soviet Union.

Q.What progress has the state made toward turning friendship agreements with the Russian Republic, Baltics and the Ukraine into tangible business opportunities?

A. We recently formed a Soviet advisory group -- business advisory group -- which includes representatives from the universities and private sector and state agencies that have an interest to really see how we can best and most effectively use these agreements to the benefit of Maryland's businesses and the people of Maryland while at the same time trying to help the people of these republics make this reformation . . . this change into . . .democratic institutions and creating a free market economic system.

Q. What is the nature of the agreements the state has signed with the republics of the Soviet Union?

A. Well, they're general on the one hand, and on the other hand they specify specific areas in which we are going to operate. And, the agricultural agreements, again, basically deal with exchanges of students, specialists, faculty, farmers and others.

Q. Is Maryland one of many states that are doing this kind of thing or is Maryland unique?

A. I think an increasing number of states are getting involved and showing more interest in developing ties with the former republics of the Soviet Union. Maryland is clearly at the forefront in this area, thanks in large part to the governor's own personal interest in the area and leadership. The White House has said that Maryland's program in the agricultural area is an example for the rest of the country.

Q. Does the breakup of the Soviet Union endanger Maryland's agreements?

A. No, it doesn't. In fact, it probably enhances the agreements we have because the agreements we have are either with the republics themselves, or they are with organizations within the republics. So if anything, I think the breakup of the union makes these agreements even more important.

Q. How much interest do you perceive among Maryland businesses to trade with the Soviet Union?

A. The interest is enormous. There is lots and lots of interest on the part of Maryland businesses, large and small, to develop trade connections and ties and people-to-people kinds of relationships with the Soviet Union and with the republics within the Soviet Union. I think there's a realization on the part of the business community that there is an enormous market there, despite the fact that there are many, many reasons why they may not right now be able to make money in that market place, that clearly it represents a strategic opportunity for them and for Maryland businesses and American businesses over the long term.

Q. Do Americans have any advantages over businesses from other countries?

A. Yes, my impression is from a number of trips to the Soviet Union is they would rather do business with the Americans. If you watch TV when you're over there, listen to the radio, frequently it's the United States, American business, the American government, the American people that are cited as the role models for the Soviets . . . and there are some naturally historical apprehensions on the part of the Soviet people towards some of the European countries, the Germans in particular, as well as the Japanese and some others.

Q. With the political and economic instability in the Soviet Union, is this a good time to be doing business there?

A. Again, I think you have to look at the Soviet market as a strategic or a long-term opportunity. It's not to say that you could not go over there and meet an existing need and realize in the payment of profit or sale from that lead. You'd have to be very patient, you have to know, be sure, that the people you're dealing with are in fact the people that are credible.

Q. Do you find that Americans are as aggressive as business leaders from other countries in pursuing trade with the Soviet Union?

A. I think that the Europeans and Japanese are much more aggressive in this regard.

Q. What role can the state play in pushing this effort along?

A. I think in several ways. I think first of all in terms of developing business and other kinds of ties with Soviets, I think when you have this relationship like with the Russian Republic, like we've developed with [Lithuania] and throughout the other Baltic republics, that gives you a framework, an official framework, under which your businesses, your universities, and everyone else who wants to help, wants to provide a service or a product or provide technical expertise, it provides a framework under which that can be conducted . . . Absent that, it's 'you're on your own.' You know, you knock on a lot of doors. This really makes that process much less cumbersome.

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