According to a European Commission press release, the EU plans to establish multi-faceted co-operation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, accelerating reform via legislation and further economic integration.
Minsk welcomes the idea. “We note the non-discriminatory character of Brussels’ decision, stipulating equal, full participation in the ‘Eastern Partnership’ initiative for all invited states,” asserts Andrey Popov, press secretary for Belarus Foreign Ministry. He is hopeful that Belarus’ participation will be confirmed at its official launch on May 7th, 2009, in Prague.
The programme aims to simplify the visa regime, while creating a free trade zone and co-operation in the sphere of energy safety. It is a brand new step for Brussels, made last autumn to tackle the latest geopolitical challenges, connected with the conflict between Russia and Georgia, as well as the current economic and energetic crisis.
The European Union has always recognised Belarus as a sovereign European state with its own independent policy. This has now developed into a situation where limited contact or ‘isolation’ is unfeasible. 31.7 per cent of Belarus’ total trade is with EU states. Accordingly, Belarus has been invited to join the ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme.
As far as Belarus is concerned, the programme summarises the basic directions of Belarusian diplomacy for the last year. Belarus views the new European Commission representation, opened in Minsk a year ago, as an instrument for closer co-operation with the EU. Spheres of common interest include energy, the development of trans-European transport corridors, co-operation in the sphere of border control, development of boundary infrastructure and the control of illegal migration, human trafficking and organised crime. Additionally, there are trans-border programmes and projects in the sphere of environmental protection. Clearly, ‘isolation’ is impossible — a ‘rusty’ fragment of old ‘iron curtain’ mentality.
Sergei Martynov, Belarus Foreign Minister, often notes that we are a ‘net-supplier of regional safety’, since Belarus contributes greatly to European economic, ecological and energy security.
The EU expanded to 27 members (from 12) between 1992 and 2007, which French President Nicolas Sarkozy believes led to ‘loss of control and co-ordination’. During his chairmanship of the EU, the French leader announced that the entry of the Balkan States — waiting since 2000 — would be the last ‘for some considerable time’.
It is clear today that there is another way. The ‘Euroeast’ can be integrated without full membership. The EU needs a buffer of loyal neighbours — as foreseen by the ‘Eastern Partnership’. The EU’s geopolitical strategy aspires to involve former Soviet Union republics, including Belarus, which ‘occupies a special place in the ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme’ according to one distinguished European politician.
The opening of an EU office — handling issues of foreign policy and safety — in Minsk, was unexpected for some, who have built their careers on the ima-ginary ‘isolation of Belarus’. Mr. Javier Solana hopes that relations between Brussels and Minsk will develop well. He reported that his visit to Belarus was fruitful, and his talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko were constructive. Mr. Solana also announced that his visit would lay the foundation for deeper co-operation between Belarus and the EU.
Meanwhile, Sergei Martynov has declared that the geographical position of Belarus defines its importance within the EU — regarding trade and safety. He believes dialogue between Minsk and Brussels in these spheres is successful. In recent years, the EU has become as important a trading partner for Belarus as Russia. Accordingly, its policy is a concentrated expression of economic need.
“Stable relations with the EU are profitable for the economy,” Mr. Martynov has told a Czech newspaper. “Belarus is an export-oriented country, generating around 60 per cent of its GDP from sales abroad; our economy is one of the most open in Europe. Naturally, Belarus is interested in stable trade and economic relations with the EU — it’s a powerful, technologically-advanced intergovernmental organisation, with a large market. We aren’t looking for one-sided advantages; we can offer investment opportunities which are mutually beneficial and have many strategic advantages. Think of our geographical position, well-developed infrastructure, advanced scientific and technological potential, skilled manpower and absence of conflict — religious and national. From this point of view, it’s natural that Belarus be invited to join the ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme — being officially launched in Prague this year. It will meet our European partners’ own interests.”
Many Western investors have already visited Minsk, keen to investigate the potential on offer. One such example was a delegation from Saxony, which recently toured Minsk’s top enterprises. Deputy Prime Minister Thomas Jurk, who also acts as the Minister for the Economy in Saxony, headed the German delegation of businessmen, which included the head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He announced, “It is important that the European Union sees the ‘improved democratisation’ of your country. High-ranking officials have their role to play. Saxon enterprises have been successfully liaising with Belarusian partners for some time but have asked me to assist their work in Belarus at a political level.” Frankness is always welcome.
Mr. Jurk admitted that businessmen, being aware of Belarusian potential, can exert pressure on politicians. “Belarus has great economic potential and is within reach of the world’s entrepreneurs. Saxon machine-building companies have made contacts here, with some advantages. To preserve and expand these advantages, they need support from their own politicians,” Mr. Jurk asserted. “Our visit aims to bring new orders for Saxon companies while preserving and creating new jobs. Market access during these hard times is of particular importance.”
Germany is playing an important role in modernising Belarusian enterprises. In 2002, turnover between our countries amounted to 1 billion US Dollars; by 2008, this had quadrupled. Even better is the threefold rise in German investments into the Belarusian economy, which benefits our companies in the long term. As our factories are technologically re-equipped, they can better meet European quality standards and remain competitive within the EU market.
Investment. Yuri Shevtsov, a famous Belarusian politician, forecasts, “Continuing technological modernisation in Belarus will bring inevitable co-ope-ration with EU suppliers. We are being offered participation in investment programmes run by the EU and the USA. Clearly, Europe is taking a more active policy towards Belarus.” The European Commission’s ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme is founded on three pillars.
Liberalisation of the visa regime. Jean-Eric Holzapfel, Charge d’Affaires of the European Commission Representation in Belarus, admits that visa issues are being ‘actively discussed’. He believes many people are keen to see the situation change and has promised to simplify the visa regime if Belarus becomes a member of the European good-neighbour policy. The visa issue will be a test for the ‘Eastern Partnership’, since dialogue cannot take place from behind a high ‘visa fence’. In May, when the programme is accepted, we’ll see the sincerity of intentions.
The European Commission has offered to organise free trade zones between the EU and member-states of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ — a long-awaited privilege for Belarusian enterprises, who have faced barriers for some time. Belarus is hoping to see all EU quotas cancelled on Belarusian textiles in 2010, according to Andrey Evdochenko, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus. He notes that, since January 1st, 2009, the EU has cancelled import quotas on 13 out of 33 Belarusian textiles. “Negotiations are ongoing for the cancellation of all quotas,” he stresses.
Andrey Rusakovich, the head of the Centre for Foreign Policy and Safety Research, underlines that inclusion into the EU free trade zone would have wide-ranging significance for Belarus. “Colossal improvements would be needed to Belarusian legislation,” he asserts. Denis Meljantsev, a political commentator, believes that inclusion in the ‘Eastern Partnership’ would give Belarusian officers valuable experience.
In March, a Belarusian delegation led by GosStandart Chairman Vasily Koreshkov visited Brussels to discuss Belarusian goods’ compliance with EU requirements and the expansion of our presence within the European market. It is vital that Belarus become an affiliated member of the European Committee for Standardisation, since it will bring access for the Republic’s industrial sector. In addition, it would bring the legislation of our country into line with that of the EU — an expensive endeavour which would be partially financed by the European Union.
Energy. Obviously, Belarus plays a significant role in energy security within Europe, being a transit country. It provides the shortest route for gas and oil from Russia to the EU and is thus of interest to both great neighbours. The current economic crisis may inspire economic pragmatism to prevail over their political ambition. As soon as this happens, Belarus — with its extensive network of pipelines — will be ready.
The recent gas crisis has shown the urgent necessity of creating infrastructure to bring greater supplies to European consumers. The Belarusian go-vernment sees the opening of a second ‘Yamal–Europe’ pipeline as the solution, bringing an additional 23.5 billion cubic metres of gas to Europe annually, within a mere 18–24 months. It could be achieved at minimal expense, since necessary infrastructure for the additional line was created during the construction of the original.
The ‘Nabucco’ Project — yet to be realised — would supply gas from Central Asia and the Caspian Region to Europe via Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Austria, providing 20–30 billion cubic metres annually. ‘Yamal–Europe-2’ is likely to be up and running well ahead of its rival and requires just 2.6 billion US Dollars of investments — far less than other similar projects. Russia may step in to provide funding, since the pipeline would enable it to diversify its supply route to the European market, while maximising profits by using the shortest transit corridor. Poland and Germany are also likely to be keen to see the project completed, since they will receive a reliable supply of natural gas, with additional volumes which they can use to generate further income for themselves.
Sergei Sidorsky, the Prime Minister of Belarus, has announced that the construction of the second line will cost half that of other such projects for Russian gas transit. It would allow the transport of additional gas volumes through Belarus to Europe. “Belarus offers the shortest route of supply,” he underlines.
The topic is often under discussion, with some analysts considering the belt of EU neighbours as an alternative to Russia. The European Union and the West may be trying to move Belarus away from Russian influence. “The Partnership aims to drag post-Soviet states away from the influence of Russia and into the sphere of the EU,” confirms one Belarusian analyst.
My view of the Partnership is more pragmatic. The programme is to be accepted with a wide political frame. Ideo-logy has little role to play, although EU expansion has taken place under the motto of ‘European values’. EU requirements have to be met carefully, even though membership of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ does not bring automatic entrance into the EU. The states being invited to take part are numerous, each bringing their own flavour. Certainly, pleasant openings lie ahead.