Businesses operating outside their home territory confront new communication issues wherever they go – but Central and Eastern Europe’s mosaic of cultures represents an especially challenging environment for outsiders.
For a start there is no single definition of the region, indeed, the very use of the word “region” immediately implies the sort of homogeneity that does not exist. In daily parlance, Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) can refer to anything from six to 26 states lying between Germany and Italy and Russia’s western border.
The narrow “Austrian definition” of CEE, a core group of eight countries comprising Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria, is probably the most practical starting point. These countries, after all, have historically been the most interesting and the most active in the economic and political development of Central and Eastern Europe. These days the rest of the post-Yugoslav and South-Eastern European (SEE) states tend to be seen as part of the region, though the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia are mostly considered separate. Austria, albeit the de facto CEE hub, is regarded as being in the West.
Whatever its precise composition of states, an important feature of CEE is its set of strong local cultures that often override regional constructions and national borders. That diversity can be especially puzzling for companies from, say, North America, Britain, France or Germany where corporate culture is strong. These businesses typically struggle to understand why they cannot treat everyone the same way, and sometimes have to learn the hard lesson that finesse and tact are prized interpersonal skills.
There are, of course, certain unifying cultural factors across CEE. Aversion to former oppressors in Russia, for example, and a lingering resentment against Germans for the Second World War. When it comes to communications, certain common features can also be identified. Central Europe, for example, is in many ways “old world”: slower, more attentive to style and detail and more laid-back than most Anglo-Saxon countries, albeit more results oriented than process driven. Personal contact and relationships are critical. Informal networks in business are more important than official structures, which means that trust and friendship count for much. A handshake is often worth more than a signed contract and regulations, transparency and compliance are considerably less important than they are in the West. Bargaining is expected, hard feelings forgotten once the deal is done. That said, hierarchy and differences in status are taken seriously.
Such generalisations, however, serve to underline local differences. The EU accessions in 2004 and 2007 have not had much impact on national political systems, and nationalist and ethnic politics reach deep into individual life. Although many citizens speak English and German, there is no lingua franca and the preponderance of native languages in business transactions frequently gives rise to misunderstandings. Language is only a part of it. Values, attitudes, temperaments, outlooks, customs and manners all vary according to which part of the region you are in.
What follows are some specific characteristics of the five most developed markets of CEE. They highlight the overriding importance of sensitivity to local cultures and ethnic difference, the dangers of western arrogance, the risks of misunderstanding and the desirability of diplomacy. The accompanying sidebar considers the varied media landscape.
Official Language Hungarian (Magyar)
Total Area 93,030 km2
GDP (PPP) $199.395bn
Ethnic Hungarians are descended from the horsemen of the Magyars and are scattered across neighbouring countries. The “Hungarian soul” – fervent, fun-loving, sensitive and profound – typically elicits personal sympathy and engenders spontaneous trust. The mentality is a little more traditional than in other countries, with hierarchies and social structures questioned less than elsewhere. At the same time, Hungarians share a social consciousness that reflects a more critical attitude towards the free market.
Official Language Polish
Total Area 312,679 km2
GDP (PPP) $620.868bn
A big country with a new ethnic (West-Slavonian, Polones) and religious homogeneity after a changing, diverse history. National pride, and a sense of their own importance, is a consequence. Ambivalence is reflected in a strong pro-Western orientation and Catholic values on the one hand, and social grassroots and hierarchical systems on the other. Poles are mostly polite and non-confrontational, though this usually changes with familiarity and a party mood. Personal contact and deep relationships are much more important than in the West.
Official Language Czech
Total Area 78,866 km2
GDP (PPP) $250.057bn
Currency Czech Koruna
The West-Slavonian Czechs are often compared with the Germans: less relaxed and spirited but more tradition-based than their eastern and southern neighbours. Business is done much more informally than in the West, with less of a division between job and private life. The focus on personal interaction is even more pronounced than in other CEE countries. In the eyes of a Czech, cooperation will be successful if people like each other. Personal meetings and conversations are often held privately and over a beer, and the search for compromise is a common trait. Politics, on the other hand, can be a rough business and national pride is deeply engrained.
Official Language Slovak
Foundation \ Independence 1993
Total Area 49,035 km2
GDP (PPP) $109.677bn
A small and young entity that parted from Czechoslovakia 15 years ago. Probably the most “western” country in CEE with the lowest average age and a highly dynamic economy that has fully made the transition to market-based capitalism. The Slovaks are also ethnically West-Slavonian, their language is similar to Czech. Although they stress their distinctiveness, and different religious traditions, Slovaks share many Czech characteristics.
Official Language Slovene
Foundation \ Independence 1991
Total Area 20,273 km2
GDP (PPP) $46.084bn
Formerly part of communist Yugoslavia but created after a 1990 referendum, Slovenia is another impressive CEE story. The country is a successful mix of Balkan and Catholic traditions, laced with western modernism, and now has the highest GDP per capita in CEE. Rather than Balkan-Slavic, Slovenes see themselves as Central European and Mediterranean, though the Protestant influence remains strong. Nationalism, which plays a big role, is fuelled by conflicts with far-right Croatian and Austrian neighbours. Business is conducted in a highly personal style that combines Latin and Austrian ways. Openness, honesty and politeness are highly valued.
Print media is still the major source of detailed information in Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia, though radio and TV are also important. Tabloids and boulevard publications are prevalent but the quality titles are catching up. While some print publications are in foreign hands, broadcast and newswires are generally state controlled. The significance of the internet varies across the region, but penetration rates are generally below those in western Europe, except in Slovenia.
The media landscape is not highly developed, with boulevard newspapers and broadcast the most important channels. This is partly because of the monopoly power of more than 20 local dailies. Metro (Swedish Modern Times Group) with 340,000 free copies and the tabloid Blikk (Swiss-based Ringier) with 250,000 paid-for copies have the highest circulations. Among quality daily newspapers, Népszabadság (Ringier) has managed to preserve its market leader position (200,000) ahead of Hungarian-owned Magyar Nemzet (70,000). The important business papers include the daily Napi Gazdaság (20,000) and weekly Heti Világgazdaság (140,000). Internet penetration at 39 per cent is below the regional average.
The arrival of international players has modernized the media, boosting quality journalism. The country’s print press landscape is widely diversified thanks to the 90 per cent of Poles who read dailies and periodicals. The market is dominated by foreign companies such as Norwegian Orkla Media Group and German publishers including H Bauer, Verlagsgruppe Passau and Axel Springer. The most important domestic competitor is Agora. Its Gazeta Wyborcza, launched in 1989, was the first independent newspaper in post-communist Poland. Gazeta Wyborcza (420,000) was the biggest daily seller until Fakt (500,000), owned by Axel Springer, took the lead. Important business newspapers are Puls Biznesu (20,000) and Parkiet (10,000). New media usage is above average for the region.
Nine national dailies account for two-thirds of the newspaper market, with local and regional dailies responsible for most of the rest. Newspaper and magazine publishers, apart from the leftist daily Právo (200,000) and the communist daily Haló noviny (50,000), are owned by foreign companies. Finnish Sanoma Magazines International (SMI) has a strong position in women’s and lifestyle magazines and Swiss publisher Ringier is active with the daily tabloid Blesk (circulation 500,000) and with magazines. Most of the 80 or so regional and local papers are published by Vltava-Labe-Press (VLP), owned by Germany’s Verlagsgruppe Passau and its company POL-Print Medien. Daily Hospodárske Noviny (70,000) and the weekly Ekonom (30,000), both published by Economia (owned by German Handelsblatt), have the largest share of business readers. Affinity with communications technology is high.
The most popular daily newspaper is the tabloid Nový as (190,000) owned by Ringier. The leading opinion-making daily newspaper is SME (80,000) and around nine national or multi-regional independent papers share the rest of the market. The two most successful magazine and journal publishers are Ringier (with a 60 per cent market share) and the locally owned Spolonos’ 7 Plus. Some specialist magazines and journals are published by Dow Jones/Handelsblatt. The most popular weekly magazine is Plus 7 dní, followed by Bájená žena and Markíza. The Slovakian edition of the newspaper Hospodárske Noviny (20,000) and the magazine Trend (20,000) are the most widespread sources of business information. New media usage is at western levels.
Notwithstanding the country’s technology bias and international pressure to improve the freedom of the press, the media remains underdeveloped. There are eight daily newspapers comprising paid-for circulation of approximately 263,000 copies. The two top dailies are the broadsheet Delo (70,000) and tabloid Slovenske novice (90,000), both owned by Delo. They account for more than 50 per cent of the market. Two other quality dailies, Dnevnik in the capital Ljubljana and Veer in Maribor, are both regional and each control about 20 per cent of the market. Foreign media only arrived about 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today they include Bonnier and Dagens Industri (both Sweden), Styria Verlag, Leykam (Austria) and Burda (Germany). The business newspaper is Finance, with a circulation of about 15,000. The country’s internet penetration at 68 per cent is the biggest in CEE and even exceeds Austria and Germany.