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Baltic banking: Scandinavians bid for Baltic banks

Scandinavian banks are falling over themselves to make acquisitions and take stakes in the Baltic states. What they get are brand-new, hi-tech banks with underdeveloped markets. The downside is that experienced local bankers are thin on the ground. The locals seem pleased enough by the invasion but some hint that more diversity of foreign involvement might offer a wider window on the world. Alex Mathias reports.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are an odd mix of the very old and the very new, with not much in between. In the beautifully preserved old cities, winding cobblestone streets lead visitors round medieval churches and fortresses to the constant accompaniment of bells. Outside the cities' defensive walls the bells are replaced by pile-drivers and hooting taxis, office buildings are slick and new and western chain stores line the streets. In Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, you find the Museum of Genocide Victims, the grim old KGB headquarters and prison, and a statue to 1960s rock musician Frank Zappa all within a 20-minute walk of each other.

Baltic banking is like its cities - it has gone from ancient to modern in one leap. "They are jumping over steps that it was taking over 20 years for other countries to do," says Monica Caneman, executive vice-president of Baltic states at SEB.

The abruptness of change is a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only after the Baltic states gained independence in 1991 were these countries able to create independent banking systems. And they created them in the image of Western systems that had had the time to learn from their mistakes.

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