These are not mere phrases, but a clear political trend, as testified by a range of visits by top European politicians to Minsk. The President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, alongside the Foreign Ministers of Germany and Poland, Guido Westerwelle and Radoslaw Sikorski, and European Commissioner Stefan Fule have given a clear signal of rapprochement and co-operation. Remarkably, this signal was given before the presidential elections, testifying to European confidence in the succession of the current political trend.
The Eastern Partnership programme is one of the most vital instruments of the EU regarding its Eastern neighbours, including Belarus. According to experts’ unanimous opinion, Belarus is the most active player in this initiative.
The participants of an international round table discussion, organised by our editorial office, tackled what has been achieved already and which projects remain in the partnership’s ‘portfolio’. Anna Dyner, an expert with the Polish Institute of International Affairs, was joined by Jaroslaw Dziedzic — the Head of Division for the Eastern Partnership Programme and EU Policy in Eastern Europe at the Polish Foreign Ministry’s Eastern Department, Rafal Sadowski — the Eastern Partnership Department Head at the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies, Adam Balcer — an expert with the Demos Europa organisation, Dmitry Yarmolyuk — who heads the European Integration Department at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s Main European Directorate, Vladimir Ulakhovich — the Director of the Belarusian State University’s Centre for International Studies, Yuri Shevtsov — a political analyst (Minsk), and Sergey Chaly — an economic analyst (Minsk).
Editorial office: What has been done over the past 18 months, since the programme was launched? Can we sum up the preliminary results and assess further opportunities?
Mr. Dziedzic: Before we begin our conversation, I’d like to note that the ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme unites 33 states: 27 EU members and 6 partner-countries. According to my estimates, we’ve achieved a great deal over the past 18 months, since the initiative was launched. If we speak about multilateral collaboration, we’ve managed to set up and expand the structure of relations with partner-countries. I’ll briefly remind you of our thematic platforms, panel meetings of experts and flagman initiatives. In my opinion, it’s now vital for Poland and Belarus to fill concrete proposals with definite actions. At today’s meeting, we must learn Minsk’s views on these issues and its assessment of our mutual relations within the partnership programme.
Mr. Ulakhovich: As far as our country is concerned, I’d like to draw your attention to two aspects, which I believe are essential. Firstly, we have achieved noticeable political results from participating in this programme. A range of top level visits have recently taken place, testifying to this. This is a political path down which we should continue to progress.
Secondly, we’ve recently seen a nationwide consensus towards this programme. At a political level, and in civil society, we are convinced that it is vital for Belarus. We have clear ideas regarding which areas are suitable for collaboration and know which interests we can primarily promote and what the results should be.
Editorial office: Mr. Chaly, is the Eastern Partnership programme already filled with economic content? Or is it too early to see results?
Mr. Chaly: Yes, there are economic projects, which deserve the most serious attention. These primarily cover energy security and the development of corresponding infrastructure.
As far as I know, no answers from the EU have arrived regarding our proposals. The fact that we still lack legislation governing bilateral co-operation with the EU is hampering our fully-fledged interaction. The agreement on partnership and collaboration with Belarus hasn’t been ratified by the EU yet, which causes bewilderment.
Mr. Dziedzic: I’d like to allay your concerns and the scepticism inspired, in my view, by your excessive expectations. The ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme isn’t only about creating infrastructure, power engineering and supplies of resources. It pursues other goals. In particular, it aims to help strengthen the administrative structure of participating countries while creating conditions for the better functioning of their economies. Economic collaboration and energy security are as important in determining progress within the ‘Eastern Partnership’ as democracy, the supremacy of law and respect for human rights and major freedoms.
Mr. Balcer: I’d like to say a few words about power engineering: not only about resources, gas, oil and pipelines. The creation of corresponding institutes in this area is an important part of partnership; I’m thinking of Belarus’ membership of the European Energy Union.
The creation of national legislation to achieve transparency on the energy market is also a vital part of our interaction in the energy sphere, as part of the ‘Eastern Partnership’. The use of renewable energy sources, such as water, solar energy, wind and biomass are another promising area for liaisons. This type of energy is well-developed in Western countries, with Sweden being one of the leaders.
If Belarus had taken a more intensive role in the ‘Eastern Partnership’ and more actively developed these relations, its membership of the European Energy Union would appear on the EU agenda.
Mr. Yarmolyuk: Belarus joined the ‘Eastern Partnership’ process at the very stage of its establishment. Today, we have definite ideas on how to optimise and improve it. We’ve taken an active role in events at all levels since the 2009 Prague Summit. Next year, we hope to participate in another ‘Eastern Partnership’ summit.
It’s common knowledge that Belarus’ status in this project is rather specific, but it has happened through no fault of our own. If we wish to question it, we should ask representatives of the European Union, Brussels and European institutes. Meanwhile, we’re taking great advantage of the opportunities currently available to us as part of this initiative, and plan to continue making our constructive contribution to its development. This project has potential which significantly exceeds the functions it currently fulfils. Accordingly, our task is to avoid restricting its activity.
Editorial office: What do you mean? Does Belarus consider the EU’s offers to be insufficient?
Mr. Yarmolyuk: The novelty of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ — compared to the ‘European Neighbourhood Policy’ (ENP) — lies primarily in its multilateral essence. Belarus was pinning great hopes and expectations on this dimension, hoping it would give additional impulse to co-operation between countries within our region and collaboration between this group of countries and the EU. However, our hopes have not been fully realised. The added value of the multilateral path has occurred via renewed dialogue at bilateral level. However, it’s vital that ideas and initiatives discussed at bilateral level find practical application at a multilateral level. If this concept dominated, the ‘Eastern Partnership’ would benefit us in many respects and its future would be assured. As it is, its future is under question, raising more concerns than giving solutions.
Probably, such issues would never have arisen if the ‘Eastern Partnership’ had originated in a ‘vacuum’ — as the first initiative of its kind. However, it is preceded by long EU experience and the ‘Barcelona Process’, which existed long before the ‘Eastern Partnership’; it recently transformed into the ‘Union for the Mediterranean’.
What does the Southern vector of the ‘European Neighbourhood Policy’ look like? Political dialogue has successfully co-existed with a rather well developed practical vector, aimed at integrating this region while developing strategic interfaces: ties and infrastructural bridges between countries, as well as between this group of states and the EU. The EU has promoted the modernisation of the economies of these countries by implementing definite projects. Moreover, funds allocated to these projects by the EU can’t be compared with those for the ‘Eastern Partnership’. A fixed proportion of funding is shared between the ENP’s Eastern and Southern components — long approved by the EU and standing at one third to two thirds.
Looking at the current situation, we should be realistic. Until 2013, we’ll be concentrating on organisational reform of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ while creating an initial reserve for our goals.
Editorial office: What is the reason for such deliberation, in your opinion?
Mr. Yarmolyuk: Speaking of the EU’s deliberation regarding the realisation of this initiative, we can note various elements: the EU’s lack of money, the negative influence of the financial crisis and the sluggishness of European bureaucracy which sometimes needs years to launch a project. We should also remember that the Eastern region is diverse; there are six countries, each boasting their own specific priorities and interests regarding the EU. All these reasons are significant.
If we compare the ‘Eastern Partnership’ and the ‘Union for the Mediterranean’, then, in my view, the major reason still relates to ‘real politik’. No political ‘heavyweights’ (from the states representing old Europe) stand behind the ‘Eastern Partnership’ — with all respect to our Polish colleagues, who initiated the project, and to Sweden, which has been actively assisting in its realisation. These states aren’t actively hindering ‘Eastern Partnership’ work but, in the South, personally interested states — such as France, Italy and Spain — are actively promoting the ‘Union for the Mediterranean’.
Accordingly, one of our most important tasks is to ensure that as many of the most influential EU states as possible are aware of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme and actively join in its realisation. As for ourselves, we plan to do everything possible. We’ll be very grateful to our Polish partners for their efforts in this direction.
Mr. Sadowski: It’s necessary to take into consideration the potential of other institutions — such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank. The most important achievement of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ is changed thinking, to the benefit of support of our Eastern neighbours and Eastern partners. I think there are funds available for the development of co-operation.
Ms. Dyner: Apart from the money (envisaged by the ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme and other EU instruments), there are other possibilities regarding the bilateral relations. For example, certain funds are to be allocated as part of Poland-Belarus collaboration. As Mr. Dziedzic has noted, if participation in the ‘Eastern Partnership’ leads to institutional reform and the creation of legislation governing investors, then the state will be interested in rendering support for these programmes. Obviously, it’s not just partner-countries which are interested in co-operation within the ‘Eastern Partnership’. The programme is also important for the European Union and, primarily, for those states which share common borders with their Eastern partners. In particular, we refer to the creation of transport corridors and energy transit. It’s important for us to know what is most important to you; we need to see your priorities to decide where funds should be allocated.
Mr. Dziedzic: I’d like to stress something already mentioned by Mr. Sadowski. In fact, not only 600m euros are in focus, but 1.9bn euros. This means we should study the whole complex of funds which are targeted at our Eastern neighbours. Either next year or in 2012, a financial plan for the next seven years will be studied. Our common task is to convince the European Commission that as much money as possible is allocated to the neighbourhood policy. We’ll take care to ensure maximum financing.
Editorial office: Mr. Shevtsov, how practical is the Eastern Partnership in its present form and what are the future possibilities?
Mr. Shevtsov: In my view, Belarus has many more advantages than disadvantages within this initiative. I’d mark it as ‘good’. We should start looking at our relations with the European Union more realistically. About a year and a half ago, we were just starting on our path; now, we’re already seeing positive results.
This initiative has emancipated negotiations to realise major joint projects with neighbouring countries. Our main goal was to leave behind diplomatic isolation in Europe, becoming part of large European programmes. Our further steps were to use our own forces and to join neighbouring countries interested in collaboration in realising some major projects. The ‘Eastern Partnership’ initiative has fulfilled these functions fully.
Editorial office: Much criticism has been expressed regarding the programme. What are its weaknesses, in your opinion?
Mr. Shevtsov: Perhaps due to momentum, or certain cliches, talks regarding the ‘Euro Nest’ have been rather futile. The political component of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ has been progressing far too slowly for Belarus, compared with the country’s needs for expanding co-operation; it is still yet to become viable. Speaking of Belarus’ interests regarding the partnership in its political sense, it would be good if the ‘Euro Nest’ related issue had been postponed until the parliamentary elections, which are near at hand.
Editorial office: Meanwhile, our European partners should remember that Belarus has accepted an invitation to become an equal member of the programme. It is unfair and incorrect to impose conditions of co-operation on us. In our view, this is an important aspect.
Mr. Shevtsov: I can’t help but think that the philosophy of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ is mismatched with the pace of regional co-operation between our six countries — I should stress that this is regarding the level of philosophy upon which the programme is based. Brussels has been debating the EU’s terms of investment while Belarus has already received quite interesting proposals from large Chinese investors. While EU officials have been discussing the volume of money to allocate, when and how, Belarus has independently found its own solution to the energy problem in its relations with Russia. Venezuelan oil is being imported and volumes are growing. There’s no doubt that oil from other countries will arrive soon. In other words, regional co-operation by the six countries of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ is developing more quickly than the philosophy of the EU initiative itself. It seems to me that, in planning further actions for the next stage of the programme’s realisation, we must note that, if the EU continues in this slowly deliberative vein, the region is likely to lose interest in close co-operation with the EU for the time being.
Editorial office: Which major projects — profitable for Belarus and the whole Eastern Partnership programme — could be desirable in future?
Mr. Shevtsov: We should proceed from the fact that energy oil-related problems will be solved. The southern branch of the Druzhba oil pipeline is starting operations. Pumping of Venezuelan, Azerbaijani and, probably, Iranian oil is starting. How can the ‘Eastern Partnership’ contribute to the development of our states? Most likely, we should raise the issue of support from the EU regarding co-operation between countries in our region — primarily, for the development of new transport infrastructure oriented at sea terminals. We can raise the question — as we’ve done regarding Ukraine — so that Venezuelan oil can be supplied not only to our country but to Ukraine. Simultaneously, we can jointly raise the issue regarding Poland and Lithuania — i.e. supplying oil to the Gdansk and Plock refineries in Poland and Mazeikiai Refinery in Lithuania. Belarus is now able to help these states receive oil on affordable terms.
However, certain problems have also emerged during this period — in particular, referring to gas supplies. To be more correct, these problems deal with the possibility of receiving Qatar liquefied gas. This affects not only Belarus but the whole of our region. Projects which are now in place and which are currently being discussed are, as a rule, of national character. For example, this is an idea of creating a Belarusian terminal in Klaipeda. A similar project could take place in Ukraine. Although this might not be the most rational method of solving the national problems; most of Belarus’ neighbours also need Qatari gas. If the aspirations of regional countries were supported at EU level, cheaper variants could be found to solve the gas problem.
The EU’s financial cycle of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme is closing (18-24 months remain, during which basic financial funds should be mastered). With this in mind, more projects dealing with the intensification of political co-operation should be prepared for the next stage. This coincides with a period of closer rapprochement between Belarus and the European Union — and approximately coincides with our parliamentary elections. This is a very convenient moment for the intensification of co-operation.
Mr. Ulakhovich: We are viewing this programme — including, I think, at the top political level — as ‘national state building’. Issues of economics and energy are key for Belarus. One of the traditional imperatives of state building is social-economic sustainability.
The conceptual part of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ is, for us, trade and energy. This is the segment where we expect the greatest progress. The second sphere deals with the regional approach. We’ve spoken much of its importance here. If you remember, last year, jointly with Lithuania and Ukraine, Belarus brought a package of regional projects to the ‘Eastern Partnership’ ministerial summit. In this respect, I agree with Mr. Shevtsov: this dimension now lacks the weight it deserves from our side.
Editorial office: Will joint Belarusian-Lithuanian-Ukrainian projects ever be implemented?
Mr. Ulakhovich: It seems to me that, firstly, it’s now a good time for this programme’s realisation: the completion of the first financial cycle. This allows us to develop the project core, while outlining common approaches and strengthening political dialogue. Meanwhile, next year, it will be the turn of Hungary and Poland to chair the ‘Eastern Partnership’: the former has already announced this idea to be a priority while Poland has never concealed its desire to see this happen. I see a certain administrative resource here which should help us develop the project core, strengthening our mutual understanding and deepening our dialogue, so that we see the first fruits by 2013.
Mr. Yarmolyuk: Returning to the words of Mr. Dziedzic regarding the half-full / half-empty glass, I can say that I fully agree. Belarus — despite all restrictions and obstacles to fully-fledged participation in the ‘Eastern Partnership’ — remains, probably, one of the greatest optimists regarding this programme. However, we are realists. We see the existing shortcomings and objective obstacles to its realisation and are doing everything possible to level the situation, so that the glass won’t remain half-full.
We understand that there are obstacles to achieving the programme’s realisation — borne of the global financial crisis and its consequences. Really, the initiative was born in the middle of the crisis — not at the most favourable time. There were no grounds to rely on the allocation of great funds but, understanding these objective problems, we must continue talking at all levels about the obstacles we can eliminate. For example, there is a lack of interest from some countries, bureaucratic protractions and the distribution of accents by the European Union in its policy (which are not advantageous for us). While understanding that we are probably unable to overcome all objective obstacles independently at the moment, we must make all efforts to avoid them in the next financial cycle — starting from 2014. We should also minimise the negative influence of these factors.
At present, the ‘Eastern Partnership’ badly needs a uniting element: projects which offer real advantages and thus push participants to search for ways to unite efforts, despite their individual differences.
Mr. Dziedzic: I’d like to say some words about financial issues, so that we have a full picture of what is being done and what is possible. The European Investment Bank has allocated a special credit line for the ‘Eastern Partnesrhip’: the Eastern Partnership Facility — worth 1.5bn euros. In addition, it offers an external mandate worth 3.7bn euros, following the example of the Southern avenue of co-operation. It’s also worth mentioning that a quite flexible policy is being applied to the use of this money.
The Technical Assistance Trust Fund is also being set up, with 10m euros available. It will be quite flexible, aimed at helping small enterprises. This is important both for EU members and partner-countries.
Apart from the ‘East-Invest’ programme — spoken of previously — we have a new mechanism for the support of small and medium-sized businesses: the SME Facility (with a 30m euro budget). However, I’d like to note that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is showing interest in its work, so its budget could rise to 300-400m euros. This money aims to help create conditions to aid small business’ functioning and the attraction of investments. Additionally, the ‘Neighbourhood Investment Facility’ (NIF) is operational, as is an EU mechanism of macro-financial assistance to third countries.
Mr. Yarmolyuk: Speaking of plans for this money’s use, sadly, within the framework of the ‘Eastern Partnership’, mastership of funds remains a dream for us. The European Investment Bank’s mandate does not cover Belarus; it’s a key drawback of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ for us, since it halves the applied value of this initiative. The same can be said of the SME Facility, although theoretically we may use the money to support regional projects — in line with the European Commission.
The receiving of macro-financial assistance seems possible but we’ve been negotiating with the European Commission for funds since last year. Initially, 200m euros were mentioned. However, according to EU standard procedure, this money must supplement loans granted by other financial institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF. The period of the IMF programme for Belarus has now expired and the EU has not had time to make its decision, although the issue was discussed for over a year. At present, the EU has no formal right to allocate financial aid to our country.
This weakens our belief that the EU is seriously interested in building significant relations with our country, despite pronouncements to the contrary — for reasons bureaucratic and political. Decisions which are important for us are being hindered by various levels of the European Union. We are seeing a relapse into former thinking patterns; until recently, these defined the essence of our relations with the EU but we had believed a change for the better was now occurring.
Editorial office: Some issues require no major funding: such as visas. If these are solved then our citizens will see clearly that partnership exists in action as well as words, with tangible results.
Mr. Dziedzic: Solving the visa issue does not mean abolishing them altogether; it’s a complex situation involving security, the preparation of necessary documents, and so much more. An agreement on re-admission is needed and these issues must be co-ordinated during talks with partner-countries. I can assure you that Poland is doing everything possible to facilitate this process in its relations with Belarus (not long ago, an agreement was ratified on small cross-border movement between Poland and Belarus). However, I share your opinion that the visa issue is an important one for the ‘Eastern Partnership’, since it affects every citizen of the country.
By Nina Romanova