AUSTRIA is rapidly reclaiming its once pivotal trading role in Eastern Europe, a market stifled by four decades of communist rule.
"Eastern Europe is a natural sphere of interest for us," says Manfred Wimmer, a senior manager at Creditanstalt, Austria's largest bank.
With the collapse of East bloc communism in 1989 and the subsequent development of fledgling market economies in neighboring Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, Austria was well-positioned to regain its centuries-old trading influence in the region.
"Just look at the map," Mr. Wimmer says. "Many of these places fall within a 300-kilometer (180-mile) radius of Vienna."
Before World War I and the demise of the Hapsburg empire, Vienna was the hub of a self-sufficient, transnational economy based around the Danube basin.
Although no one in Vienna suggests that Austria should re-establish its former political dominance in the region, trade figures and other economic indicators show substantial and growing economic involvement there.
Eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia, has grown to become Austria's second-largest export market after Germany, according to figures released recently by Vienna's Economics Chamber.
Exports to Czechoslovakia, after a modest 6.8 percent increase in 1989, shot up 72 percent last year, to a total of 8.6 billion schillings (US$716 million). Trade with Hungary also surged last year. That country bought Austrian goods and services totaling 10 billion schillings, up 20 percent from 1989. Trade with Yugoslavia, particularly the northern republics of Slovenia and Croatia, jumped 35 percent last year, bringing Austria more than 12 billion schillings.
Austrian new investment in the region spiraled to nearly $450 million last year, a five-fold increase over 1989 levels.
Although there is no government policy specifically encouraging Austrian industry to head East, Vienna and Rome have forged links with Prague, Budapest, and Belgrade to create the Pentagonale - a regional forum for economic, environmental, and …