[b]The October visit to Belarus by the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, was discussed in a particularly lively manner by political analysts and experts [/b]Evidently, it was a landmark event. After long years of pressure and attempts to isolate Minsk, the EU understands that such a relationship is hopeless. “For a decade, Europe has built a ‘Chinese Wall’ between itself and Belarus; it’s a wall which shouldn’t exist,” admitted Ms. Grybauskaitė, speaking to Mr. Lukashenko. “Only co-operation will bring benefits to both the EU and Belarus.” Mr. Lukashenko completely agreed with his colleague, saying, “Fences and walls benefit no-one.”
Evidently, it was a landmark event. After long years of pressure and attempts to isolate Minsk, the EU understands that such a relationship is hopeless. “For a decade, Europe has built a ‘Chinese Wall’ between itself and Belarus; it’s a wall which shouldn’t exist,” admitted Ms. Grybauskaitė, speaking to Mr. Lukashenko. “Only co-operation will bring benefits to both the EU and Belarus.” Mr. Lukashenko completely agreed with his colleague, saying, “Fences and walls benefit no-one.”
We need each other
Minsk’s interest in collaboration with the EU can be explained by the fact that the EU is Belarus’ leading trade partner alongside Russia (accounting for 32 percent of total turnover last year). The attraction of European investments and technologies to modernise enterprises is a strategic aim for Minsk, stimulating its rapprochement with the EU. Thirdly, the energy sphere is of vital importance. In recent years, Belarus has been eager to diversify its energy supplies, trying to avoid complete dependence on Russian oil and gas companies. Energy efficiency is of no less importance for European states.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the EU, concerned with securing its borders and maintaining a steady energy supply, needs Belarus just as much as Belarus needs the EU. The country’s inclusion within the European Eastern Partnership programme is evidence of this mutual need, as discussed by Mr. Lukashenko and Ms. Grybauskaitė. Belarus hopes to see the Eastern Partnership filled with definite content and real projects, as does Lithuania.
According to Ms. Grybauskaitė, despite a few glitches on each side of the border, the programme definitely has a future. At present, it is more symbolic and political in character than practical. However, “Europe is opening up to Belarus, beginning to trust it, while promoting collaboration,” noted the Lithuanian President during her visit. She added, “Investments will come later if we embrace the opportunities of the Eastern Partnership.”
One of the programme’s vital tasks is to bring partner countries closer to European political values, as tackled at the meeting between the two presidents. Next year, Vilnius is to chair the OSCE. Ms. Grybauskaitė underlined, “We’d like to help Belarus to become more open and acknowledged in Europe.” Mr. Lukashenko thanked his colleague for her constructive position and assured her that the Belarusian leadership is interested in the forthcoming presidential elections being free and fair. “If the EU remains influenced by stereo-types, formed in previous years, it must set them aside.” The Belarusian President noted his eagerness to see the presidential elections organised in line with international standards. Minsk is convinced that, after the political campaign in December, Belarus-EU relations will intensify.
From sea to sea
Once, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, uniting the nations of Belarus and Lithuania. Today, this historical motif has acquired even greater popularity. Mr. Lukashenko and Ms. Grybauskaitė devoted much of their attention to the transit potential of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. The topic was also high on the agenda during talks between the Belarusian President and the President of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, in Minsk this April. A trilateral joint project — the ‘Viking’ container train — is already operational, uniting the port of Klaipeda with the Black Sea ports of Odessa and Ilyichevsk. During his visit to Turkey, Mr. Lukashenko discussed the opportunity of extending this route to the Middle Eastern region and found complete understanding from the Turkish leadership, as he told Ms. Grybauskaitė.
The transit of Venezuelan oil to Belarus (annual supplies reaching 10m tonnes) is interesting to Ukraine and Lithuania, as well as to other Baltic States. Belarus’ First Deputy Prime Minister, Vladimir Semashko, notes that up to 2.5m tonnes of Venezuelan oil could be annually transported via Klaipeda port. In October, Palanga and Klaipeda hosted a session of the Belarusian-Lithuanian Energy Commission. “We agreed that, from January 1st, 2011, we’ll be ready to guarantee annual supplies of up to 2.5m tonnes of oil to Klaipeda port and its further transportation to our oil refineries, primarily in Novopolotsk, by rail,” Mr. Semashko explains. He also notes that the supply of a trial batch of oil via Klaipeda was a success this year. “We’ve solved a technical problem and now need to optimise logistics and economics, to ensure that all is beneficial for Belarus and Lithuania.” Supplies by railroad are the current compromise, with oil to be transported to Novopolotsk Oil Refinery via pipeline in time. The construction of new transit facilities is also possible in Lithuania.
Speaking of her attitude towards joint energy projects, Ms. Grybauskaitė stressed, “This is vital, so we’re ready for open co-operation. The EU is keen on energy independence.”
Another important topic for bilateral Belarusian-Lithuanian relations is investment interaction; 410 organisations with Lithuanian capital are registered in Belarus. “The path to investment is open,” stresses Mr. Lukashenko, who notes that Lithuanian businesses are welcomed warmly in Belarus. Lithuanian businessmen place no political conditions on investment, as investors from some other states do. “We’re always glad to welcome Lithuanian financial injections,” underlines the Belarusian President, adding that Lithuanian capital investments receive reliable protection in our country. The major areas for mutual business interest are logistics, construction, tourism, wood processing and agricultural manufacture and processing.
Alongside political and economic dimensions, another vital sphere exists for liaisons: interpersonal contacts. During Ms. Grybauskaitė’s visit to Minsk, a document was signed governing mutual trips for those living close to the border of Belarus and Lithuania; it benefits hundreds of thousands of residents, allowing freer travel within a limited radius. Once it is ratified in 2011 by both countries, those from border towns and villages in our two states will be able to visit each other without the need for a visa. “It is a political and symbolic treaty, opening a ‘window to Europe’ for some Belarusians,” noted Ms. Grybauskaitė.
Those wishing to acquire a multi-entry visa to the neighbouring country will pay just 20 euros. Around 600,000 residents in Belarus and 800,000 people in Lithuania will be eligible, removing another barrier to Belarus-EU relationships. Minsk hopes that, in the course of time, the existing visa regime between Belarus and the EU will be simplified. “Walls benefit no-one. I believe that the wall, which was once constructed between the European Union and Belarus, is now being successfully destroyed,” asserts Mr. Lukashenko. “This should have happened once. We don’t need any walls, especially in relations between Lithuania and Belarus.”
Minsk is confident that the time will soon come when the coolness in EU-Belarus relations will be completely forgotten.
By Vitaly Volyanyuk