Driving forward integration
[b]Belarus magazine talks to Andrei Savinykh, of the Foreign Ministry of Belarus, about the development of integration across the post-Soviet space and new tasks for Belarusian diplomacy[/b][b][i]Mr. Savinykh, we’re all witnesses to the world’s changing face, but diplomats must respond to the challenges which appear. ‘As if following some law of nature, each century sees a new country dominate, aiming to bring others under its power and will, following its intellectual and moral outlook.In 17th century France, a new approach was proposed, based on principles of national statehood, with national interests as the ultimate goal. In the 18th century, Great Britain developed its own equilibrium of power, which dominated European diplomacy for the following 200 years. In the 19th century, Metternich’s Austria restructured the ‘European concert’ while Bismarck’s Germany dismantled it, turning European diplomacy into a cold-blooded power game. In the 20th century, the USA made its presence felt more than any other — ambiguous though its policies may have seemed’. Of course, you’ve recognised the introduction to Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy; it may guide the diplomatic strategies of the 21st century. [/b][/i]
Mr. Savinykh, we’re all witnesses to the world’s changing face, but diplomats must respond to the challenges which appear. ‘As if following some law of nature, each century sees a new country dominate, aiming to bring others under its power and will, following its intellectual and moral outlook.
In 17th century France, a new approach was proposed, based on principles of national statehood, with national interests as the ultimate goal. In the 18th century, Great Britain developed its own equilibrium of power, which dominated European diplomacy for the following 200 years. In the 19th century, Metternich’s Austria restructured the ‘European concert’ while Bismarck’s Germany dismantled it, turning European diplomacy into a cold-blooded power game. In the 20th century, the USA made its presence felt more than any other — ambiguous though its policies may have seemed’. Of course, you’ve recognised the introduction to Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy; it may guide the diplomatic strategies of the 21st century.
Belarus continues to search for its own place in the world. Since independence, for the past twenty years, Belarusian diplomacy has followed a multi-vector strategy, with recent expansion into the ‘integration of integrations’. Do you think this is a break away from the past, or simply logical development?
The ‘integration of integrations’ principle was first mentioned in Alexander Lukashenko’s article, dedicated to the creation of the Eurasian Union; it doesn’t contradict the multi-vector nature of Belarusian foreign policy. It is a logical development of our regional strategy, presupposing a higher level of economic interaction on the European continent.
Primarily, this includes harmonising two major integration processes in Europe: the Single Economic Space (SES) and the European Union. Under conditions of globalisation, accelerated economic processes bring new demands for local markets. Integration is a rational and efficient answer to such challenges. In creating a common market for the wider Europe, we can inspire economic growth in the EU, while developing our economy to become more innovative and high-tech. We can only benefit, with both sides gaining advantages.
Foremost, we’re focusing on the economy, to enhance citizens’ welfare. We need to eliminate unnecessary trade barriers, simplifying administrative regulations and ensuring free movement of investments, as well as scientific and technological achievements. True integration demands an open, transparent space based on common rules.
Interestingly, this idea has strong supporters and opponents in the West. Those in favour see long-term prospects and opportunities while those against, in defiance of common sense, exaggerate the risks and current problems, demonstrating short-term thinking. They are stuck with cold war stereotypes.
They’re not yet ready to perceive us as equal partners, so try to find problems at our expense, to block the process. However, we’re convinced that integration is the only way forward. Wider Europe must, inevitably, form a single economic space, with common standards and rules.
So Europe remains important, despite Eurasian integration …
Belarus aims to integrate in all directions: not only with Eurasia, but directly with Western Europe. We’re like a bridge between the West and the East, and ever will be.
Discussions abound regarding Belarus’ possible loss of sovereignty. If Belarus takes an active part in integration, transferring some powers to supranational level, its sovereignty is somehow infringed…
Sovereignty is not a tangible asset. No modern nation can live in isolation since our contemporary world is interdependent. We cannot ignore these complex interactions. Rather, to make our sovereignty strong, we need to make our own decisions about how we can best serve our interests. We need to adopt independent decisions to promote these interests. If the delegation of some authority to supranational bodies (such as the Eurasian Economic Commission) meets our interests then we can go ahead confidently, without infringing our independence. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t forget to keep an eye on our interests. In this way, real sovereignty is ensured, rather than declarative sovereignty.
From an economic point of view, sovereignty is guided, mostly, by GDP, added value and external surplus. If a country can earn more from exports than it consumes via imports, supplying international markets, it brings security; this ensures sovereignty. A positive balance of payments also testifies to a country’s competiveness worldwide.
From an economic point of view, our relations with Russia are strengthening our sovereignty, since they ensure a vast market and economic sustainability. It’s a key element of our foreign policy. We began as two independent, sovereign states but are now developing with common integration. How will this integration develop in future?
We started this process as two sovereign states and will continue in the same way. The formula for our integrated union will be guided by our current joint work. As we’re equal partners, some contradictions and disputes do arise, as is normal. There’s no other way to move forward.
The appearance and solution of definite problems shows that progress is ongoing. In overcoming difficulties, we improve our level of collaboration. We view this process of rapprochement with deliberation, making decisions which meet the interests of the Belarusian nation. We are in control of this process, which should lead to a closer relationship between our states.
Already, we enjoy a high level of interaction across many areas. We can speak of a common defence policy and joint action towards new challenges and threats; in proposing initiatives at the UN, and at other international organisations, we co-ordinate our positions, supporting each other. We also share an approach towards liaising with third countries in the SES format; this process will continue to develop and I think we can say that we’ll be able to achieve a level of interrelation similar to that seen between France and Germany.
That’s a rather unexpected comparison… Do you mean that integration has a strong engine for driving forward?
It’s just a parallel. Since the beginning, Moscow and Minsk have focused on integration as part of pan-European and worldwide processes. The EU is proud of its visa-free space, common labour market and multiculturalism, which we also enjoy. Our states boast the highest degree of economic complementarity and unification of legislation. We’re implementing major inter-state projects and co-ordinate our foreign policies well. We’re also pursuing a common policy in the spheres of defence and security.
Most vitally, our citizens enjoy equal rights as a result of this integration: equal access to education, healthcare and employment, regardless of their place of abode. They have freedom to choose where they reside and work.
The example of Berlin and Paris demonstrates that integration is ongoing. It’s a fundamental principle. Integration aims to improve people’s standard of living so it’s obvious that harmonising the interests of Belarus and Russia must remain a priority for now and for the future.
The number of those keen to join this integration is rising. At the end of 2012, CSTO and EurAsEC summits brought together five countries: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Tell us about these top level meetings. If our economic union is progressing smoothly, why do we need a new military organisation?
From a political point of view, the CSTO is becoming a serious organisation of regional security, as is to be expected. NATO is located in the west while the CSTO is at the centre and to the north-east of the Eurasian continent. We’re convinced that the CSTO should play a key role in strengthening pan-European and Eurasian security. The CSTO and NATO function within the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian space, solving similar tasks. Undoubtedly, both sides would benefit from co-ordinating efforts.
We’re very much aware that the CSTO needs to develop as a multi-functional organisation. The threat of military invasion is far from burning but can’t be completely ignored either. New challenges and threats, such as terrorism, illegal migration and drug trafficking, can seriously undermine internal stability and security. Collective action is required to successfully counteract them.
Some believe that these threats are more acute in Asian countries, seeing Belarus as being far removed, in all senses…
Of course, we’re located in a more favourable region; however, security is not the business of one country alone. No state can reinforce its security at the expense of others. Moreover, we’re confident that, in helping strengthen security for our friends and partners in Central Asia, we also reinforce our own; everything is interdependent in our global world.
I agree that, for example, Afghan drug trafficking is a major threat to Europe. Won’t the easing of border regimes with Central Asian countries encourage more drug smuggling from Asia to Europe, including via Belarus?
Afghan drug trafficking is a global problem, requiring a comprehensive solution. Firstly, this can be achieved through strengthening the social and economic condition of people inside this country. Law enforcement agencies in neighbouring states still have a role to play in tracking and suppressing drug distribution but the threat of drug trafficking is much less significant than the benefits of a single economic space. Windows of opportunity exist as well as threat. We need to see positive potential; as living standards improve, fewer people will be involved in crime.
We have the EurAsEC, the Single Economic Space (SES) and the Customs Union — so which has priority? Would it be better to have just one, strong integration association instead of several — as currently exist in our post-Soviet space?
Our task is to ensure that various forms of integration mutually enrich one other. The Union State, the Customs Union and the SES (and the would-be Eurasian Economic Union) have been born organically, so we shouldn’t reject any of them. Each has played a significant role at some time, with its own defined purpose. The EurAsEC has many common mechanisms and instruments supporting foreign trade while the CIS supports a common transport system and shared technical standards. Each union performs its own function.
It’s true that some spheres may have greater potential and, over time, these unions may overlap in their activities. Today, we see the most serious potential from the SES.
Tariff and non-tariff barriers have been eliminated within the framework of the SES and the Customs Union while foreign trade procedures have been unified and significantly simplified. In addition, all types of control along our ‘internal borders’ have been removed, encouraging mutual trade within the SES and the Customs Union.
We’ve given a clear political signal to the whole world that the SES is open to new members beyond the CIS. Vietnam, Egypt, New Zealand and the countries of the European Free Trade Association (Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland) have announced their intention of signing an agreement on free trade with the SES. In the course of time, these agreements may bring even closer economic relations. Anything is possible.
I think that it’s more important to pay attention to the main principle which underpins a single economic space: a free market. This stimulates entrepreneurial initiatives and eliminates administrative barriers, while ensuring the security of consumers and investors.
The same principle ensures the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. This would allow us to develop dynamically at last, while enhancing people’s standards of living. If free market principles are observed, we’ll develop successfully and more members will be attracted into the union — even those beyond our neighbouring states.
These are also the principles of the World Trade Organisation, with which Belarus is negotiating membership.
The WTO is a global system of international trade. It can’t be called the highest form of economic co-ordination, as it features so much compromise — over a whole range of negotiating stages. In honesty, its existing system is geared towards more developed states. A new round of negotiations is taking place (the round of development) as the international trade system within the WTO needs to alter. It should stimulate economic development and prosperity in developing countries, helping make the world fairer and more balanced.
These negotiations are taking some time, as the process is complex, so we need to view the WTO realistically. We’ll work with it, following the existing rules, for good or bad. Until other rules exist, we should be realists, making the most of existing opportunities. Belarus has already been following WTO norms and will soon formally apply to join, with support from our Customs Union partners.
If economic pragmatism is a major motivation in diplomacy then it must surely follow that Belarus’ relationships with neighbouring states are more beneficial than those with distant partners. Our trade turnover with Germany, Lithuania and Poland is worth many billions of US Dollars…This is true but stability comes from diversity, so the more countries we trade with the better. We need to be able to resist a future crisis by widening our suppliers and buyers. We are always working to master new markets in various regions, which is especially vital in light of the recent global economic crisis and the financial instability which was caused by western financial institutes. We’re unlikely to see any immediate upturn in economic conditions globally so must pursue a policy of diversification. We need to apply this principle to our manufacturing also, so that all our eggs do not remain in one basket. We’re developing foreign trade infrastructure and offering maintenance, repair and, even, assembly of our goods on local markets.
Nevertheless, almost half of our exports go to the EU…
Certainly, as our neighbours are there; it’s a vast market.
It must make sense to gain an even greater foothold on the EU market…
We’re keen to do so, mastering new services and sectors. For example, we have our offshore programming and our own software production at the High-Tech Park. Recently, four Belarusian companies began supplying dairy products to the EU. Our trade-economic collaboration with the EU is mutually beneficial so the removal of existing political barriers would inspire even greater interaction.
Our Foreign Minister recently met ambassadors from the European states of the UK and Estonia and the Czech Foreign Minister. Was trade or politics the focus?
Of course, a whole range of issues were discussed: both political and economic. We proceed from the fact that clear, open and constructive principles of interaction are required with the EU.
Speaking about political and economic co-operation with the EU, is its Eastern Partnership programme efficient?
Its potential is yet to be fully realised, for several reasons. First of all, the principles for involving players in forming the agenda aren’t working well, since there is some politicisation — including towards Belarus. Additionally, its funding is modest, which prevents true efficiency. It has not even distantly approached this condition. However, it has potential, so we wish to remain involved. It’s an instrument which is yet to work but could do so in future.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has noted that guarantees given in 1994 (the Budapest Memorandum) on the inadmissibility of economic pressure on our country have been ignored by the USA, the UK and Russia.
I’m surprised at the media’s reaction. They wrote that the Foreign Ministry had suddenly brought this to attention when, in fact, our dialogue with these countries has been constant on this issue.
We were given strict legal promises from these countries on non-interference and non-use of economic sanctions but these have been utterly violated by the USA and the UK. They signed an obligation which they have failed to follow; it’s unprecedented.
It seems to be the deepest sin in international relations…
Foremost, it’s dangerous for those who violate their own obligations, since they show that they’re guided by might rather than right.
This undermines their position…
This undermines trust in them. We won’t endure such a situation. We’ll continue to remind the UK and the USA of their obligations. In contrast, Belarus has fulfilled every one of its signed agreements.
Which new markets and partners are we seeking out in 2013 and how will Belarus’ foreign economic strategy be shaped?
The world has many dimensions and we’re already present on many markets. However, the degree of our involvement could be greater. We need to significantly reinforce our presence on traditional markets while establishing commodity distribution networks and extending our co-operation: be it maintenance and repair of our machinery or local assembly. We also need to expand our range of manufactures for export: this is the basis for Belarus’ foreign economic strategy.
Trade is vital but collaboration with international organisations is equally so. Shouldn’t a sovereign state maintain prestige through membership of international organisations, also allowing it to defend its economic issues?
Gaining prestige is not our goal. It comes naturally through work within the international arena and, indirectly, via interaction with partners. Of course, it’s beneficial to enjoy a good reputation but it’s a consequence rather than a goal in itself. Our priorities within the international arena are to make the world safer, more transparent and more comfortable. We’ll continue liaising with the UN to counteract threats to this comfort and safety. Climate change, social inequality, human trafficking, energy efficiency and eco policies are key areas on the agenda.
Are there any new initiatives?
Initiatives don’t exist for appearances’ sake; they are created to tackle emerging situations. We never propose an idea just to hear the sound of our own voices. We aim to bring real benefits, with support from other countries. For the past 4-5 years, we’ve focused on combating human trafficking. The seriousness of the problem has now become apparent to the international community.
Unfortunately, it’s a trend to pander to the public with sensational PR. Real action is often replaced by empty words, giving people a distorted view of reality.
I’m sure you’d agree that we need to work on our country’s image. Do you like Minsk’s new logo, which symbolises intellectual potential?
Minsk’s logo is part of a local project aiming to promote the city as one of scientific knowledge and intelligence. We see ourselves as independent, ready to work hard to better our lot with our own hands and heads. I like this approach. More ideas may appear to embellish the concept. The Foreign Ministry has long been working on Belarus’ image, since we believe it can aid our economic development, attracting investments and tourists.
Our image will continue to develop through the years ahead, drawing on the fundamental principles I’ve mentioned. In sharing these with the world community, we share our history. Let’s hope that the world will listen attentively and with great interest.
Thank you for the interview!
By Nina Romanova