A town is being built 25km from the capital of Belarus, Minsk

Great Stone has proud sound

The last time new towns were constructed from scratch in the country was many decades ago, in Soviet times. In 1958, two towns were raised within two months. On the 7th of June, the first tents were erected by those building a large oil processing plant, at the site which would become Novopolotsk. Then, on the 10th of August, the first symbolic stone was laid in the foundations of Soligorsk, where the largest deposits of potash salts had been discovered. Specialists from across the entire Soviet Union came to work there.

After almost sixty years, these enterprises are successfully working for the benefit of the economy of independent Belarus. Naftan Oil Refinery produces and exports oil products to many countries, while Belaruskali supplies fertili-sers all over the globe. One of its largest contracts is with China, supplying 1.6m tonnes of fertiliser this year. Novopolotsk and Soligorsk are flourishing, remaining among the most comfortable places for urbanities to live.

The city of which we’ll talk here differs in being constructed by Belarusians and Chinese citizens. Driving along the M-1 international motorway, leading from Russia’s capital, Moscow, to Europe, via Belarus, you’ll see signs for the ‘Great Stone Industrial Park’, written in Russian and Chinese. They’re seen also by air passengers, since the M-2 motorway, leading from the capital to the national airport, also has signs.

The central avenue of the new city catches the eye in having a great number of flags of our two states, attached to street lamps, bearing also the names of famous Chinese brands. These have already ‘settled’ as residents of the Industrial Park: China Merchants Group, Huawei, ZTE, Zoomlion, CAMC, and Sinomach. Flapping in the wind, even on weekdays, these flags create an amazingly festive mood. It seems that people are working not only for the sake of money but are driven by higher motivation. This inspires hope that the city will have the same happy destiny as Novopolotsk and Soligorsk.

Here is a short but dynamic chronology:

March 2010. During the visit of the Deputy Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, now the Head of State, Xi Jinping, to Belarus, the project of the Chinese-Belarusian techno-park was first announced.

October 2010. During the visit of President Alexander Lukashenko to the PRC, an agreement on the Park’s establishment was signed between the Belarusian Economic Ministry and China CAMC Engineering Co., Ltd.

January 2012. Belarus and China ratified an inter-governmental agreement on the joint project.

June 2012. The Decree of the President of Belarus ‘On the Chinese-Belarusian Industrial Park’ determined special legal regulation for this economic territory.

August 2012. A joint company was established to develop the park, where Chinese partners own 60 percent of shares and Belarusian partners have 40 percent.

19 June 2014. Over fifty top managers of the world’s leading companies from China, including Sinomach, CAMC, Lenоvо Group Limited, GreatWall, Huawei, and ZTE, attended the solemn ce­remony of the laying of the first stone into the foundations of the Industrial Park.

12 May 2015. During a state visit to Belarus, the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, visited the Park’s construction site, together with President Alexander Lukashenko. The leaders of our two states signed a ge­neral plan for the Great Stone Park and assessed the investment projects put forth by the first residents.

Since laying the first symbolic stone of the Park and the city, just over two years have passed. Why was Belarus chosen? The Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China, H.E. Mr. Cui Qiming, spoke in June 2016, at a round table discussion entitled ‘Belarus’ Advanta­ges and Prospects in the Silk Road Economic Belt’. The words of the diplomat were cited by BELTA News Agency: ‘Being an important part of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Belarus, in my opinion, has a number of advantages… Primarily, and thankfully, these are advantages built on our high level of mutual political trust. In the 24 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belarus, these have been developing dynamically. In 2013, during the Belarusian leader’s visit to China, the President of the Republic of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, joined the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, in announcing the raising of relations to a level of comprehensive strategic partnership, bringing a new stage of development…’

The Ambassador also paid attention to the advantages of Belarus’ geographical position: ‘Being a geographic anchor point in the Silk Road Economic Belt in Europe, Belarus occupies a vital strategic position. Belarus is a gateway to the huge markets of the EAEU and the EU, to the Baltic and Black Seas’.

Another question is why this region of Belarus was chosen for the Great Stone Industrial Park. The park adjoins the territory of the National Airport and has the M-1 international motorway nearby. Alongside, runs a railway line, some kilometres north, leading from Moscow and Russia’s European side, to Europe.

At first, Chinese construction machinery arrived from Lithuanian Klaipeda port, being dispatched by road but, in May 2016, a train delivered 800 tonnes of metal construction for the Park directly from China. Depar­ting from Hebei Province, it arrived at its destination within sixteen days, via Kazakhstan and Russia. Delivery by sea would have taken three times longer. Mr. Hu Zheng, of China Merchants Group, underlined at the train mee­ting ceremony that Belarusian goods, including fabrics and crystal ware, have already been supplied to China via train, reducing costs and enhancing competitiveness.

A convenient, almost optimal, logistics hub exists from China to Europe, close to the Belarusian capital: an ideal ‘dry port’, ensuring a wide range of opportunities for the transportation of goods manufactured in Belarus, or for the transit of cargo.

Another important factor is that the town of Zhodino, where the world’s largest heavy-duty dump trucks are produced, is situated close to the techno-park. Zhodino’s BelAZ JSC accounts for one third of the global market of quarry machinery, while the BelAZ-75710 vehicle, with a load capacity of 450 tonnes, is registered into the Guinness Book of Records as ‘the biggest 4x4 quarry machinery’. 

BelGee CJSC is building its plant not far from Zhodino, aiming to produce to 60,000 cars annually (at first). It should release its first vehicle by the end of 2016. On the 19th of July, the President of CITIC Construction Corporation, Mr. Wang Jiong, visited the construction site and was pleased with the course of work.

Returning to the Great Stone, its success relies on optimal logistics, as well as highly qualified staff. In past times, our Republic was the ‘assembly workshop’ of the Soviet Union. Since gaining independence, Belarus, unlike some of the former Soviet republics, has preserved its production and intellectual potential, through factories and design bureaus, technical universities and colleges. A large part of this potential is concentra-ted in the capital, and in neighbouring cities. The highest level of production, in 5th and 6th technological mode, is being developed at the Industrial Park, so it needs a labour force with the necessary qualifications.

Economic, political, geographical, logistical, technical and demographic factors are involved in this unique project, which is the first such for Chinese-Belarusian relations. Industrial parks of various scale and technical profile operate (or are being set up) in other countries, with which we’ll have to compete, but neither Russia nor Europe has a site on such a grand scale. It covers 90 sq.km of thoroughly planned infrastructure, close to the airport and trans-European road and rail highways.

The privileges and preferences given to Park residents are listed on the official website of the Park’s administration, calculated using the ‘10+10’ formula: exemption from paying corporate taxes for 10 years and reduction of tax rates by 50 percent over the first decade of operation. Privileges cover terms of employment for foreign employees, and the cost of land plots, which investors can buy, or rent for 99 years.

We should remember that, in April 2016, when delivering his traditional State of the Nation Address to the Belarusian People and Parliament, President Alexander Lukashenko expressed dissatisfaction with the speed of construction at the Park and then dismissed its head of administration. He enhanced the level of responsibility for the implementation of the project, stressing its importance as a state priority, drawing great attention to it.

Across its numerous construction grounds, what’s the current situation? Without wishing to sound boastful, I can name myself as the first journalist to have seen the site where the symbolic stone was later laid in the foundations, back in June 2014. At the time, it was a small patch of concrete on a firebreak within a pine forest, resembling a rocket launching pad in miniature. The article I wrote was entitled Starting Key. Today, continuing this cosmic analogy, we can add that the flight is proceeding as expected. Over the last two years, I’ve visited the site several times, and remain astonished every time.

Builders have regularly given reason for my visits: laying the foundations of a site, or completing another. Each time, I was surprised at Chinese builders’ ability to organise bright and breathtaking spectacles on holiday dates, with fireworks and parades. However, such ceremonies don’t allow you to feel the daily rhythm on this huge construction site, where much is taking place. This time, I visited for no particular occasion.

A symbolic stone is now located at the centre of the administrative town. It has several offices, whose doors bear signs indicating the ‘host’ of the town — Chinese CAMC Engineering Co., Ltd. Behind the office buildings are grounds for construction and automobile machinery, and a site housing Chinese builders, offering amenities, a canteen and everything necessary for everyday life. Mid-morning, all the rooms are empty.

I manage a rapid-fire interview with a young girl, running about with notebook and laptop. Wang Xiaoling is an interpreter and a record keeper, responsible for a huge circulation of documents. She works in an office, where she is also engaged in designing. Together with her twelve colleagues, she lives nearby, in Sokol, where she rents a comfortable urban home. She’s been in Belarus for six years, learning the language at Minsk Linguistic University. I asked her what she likes and dislikes about our country but, being in a hurry, she replied with a joke, saying that she enjoys summer but not winter.

A traditional meeting of building staff is scheduled for today. The Deputy Prime Minister, Anatoly Kalinin, periodically chairs these meetings, organised twice weekly, as required. Today is an ordinary session with the usual chairs: the director general of Capital Construction Management, Valentin Ilyushonok, for Belarus, and, on the Chinese side, the commercial manager of Chinese САМС Engineering Corporation, Tan Hao. People call him Maxim and he speaks Russian well, without need for a translator.

Valentin Ilyushonok and Tan Hao define the status of the companies they represent. САМС Engineering Corporation serves as general contractor for the complex and is responsible for delivery of equipment. Meanwhile, Capital Construction Management carries out engineering maintenance and technical supervision. Alongside them are representatives of numerous Belarusian subcontracting companies, who are participating: Soligorsk’s building trust #3 (famous in Belarus), Minsktransstroi, Minskpromstroi, and Belgazstroi.

Unexpected visitors suddenly arrive on the site: the President’s aide and chief inspector in Minsk, Alexander Yakobson, and the chairman of Minsk City Executive Committee, Andrey Shorets. They join in the session and follow the group to a model of the future city. Kirill Koroteev, first de-puty director general of the Belarusian-Chinese Industrial Park Development Company, explains that the site covers 8.5 sq.km with residential construction beginning nearby, alongside social infrastructure. He answers several questions: on who will build the apartments; who will pay for kindergartens and polyclinics; and other such practical issues, such as who will be responsible for cleaning the streets.

Alongside construction problems (supplies, financial estimates, terms, payment, and interaction of subcontractors) the session also tackles grass mowing, clearing of three fallen birch trees, and the utilisation of large volumes of pine shavings. The Great Stone is being created in a most beautiful place, amongst virgin forest, with a village, a river, a water reservoir and a reserve located nearby. Protecting the natural environment is a priority.

After the meeting, I was invited to see the state of the sites. A second-lift intake station is now ready, while six artesian wells and reservoirs with a vo-lume of 2,800 cubic metres are providing the city with pure water. The equipment has been repeatedly tested, and is now in operation. Meanwhile, the wastewater treatment site is incredible, boasting an abundance of machinery and builders. Currently, there are 380 builders on site, but the number will soon increase to 520. “We’re behind on the August schedule by ten days,” says the head of the construction department of Soligorsk building trust #3, Vitaly Vereskovsky. He remains confident that days will be gained in September.

Whilst the builders slightly lag behind in their own schedule, they’re essentially ahead of the planned schedule. It was expected that services would be installed by March 2017, while the guideline for the construction period was 21 months. However, the schedule has been revised three times, with the station due to now come into operation in October.

High-tech productions are being established at the Industrial Park, co­vering five major areas: electronics, fine chemistry, bio-pharmaceuticals, manufacture of new materials, and commercial logistics. Belarus is responsible for infrastructure: roads and approaches, water supply and removal, as well as gas, telephones, electricity and other lines of communication. Investor-resident registration is quick and they can then begin work. Belarus is fulfilling its obligations: the city doesn’t yet exist but wide streets and places for bus stops are already lit; traffic lights and road signs are installed at crossings; pavements and cycle tracks are laid and there are cars on the fringes. These cars don’t yet belong to residents but to builders.

The Chinese builders are just as speedy, while showing professionalism. The deputy director general of the Industrial Park Development Company Chinese-Belarusian JV, Zheng Minghui, tells us that China Merchants Group has invested about $500mln so far, building a large logistics centre (a ‘dry port’) to supply materials and goods, via road, rail, sea and air.

The solemn laying ceremony of the dry port took place on the 11th of December 2015, although work began only in March. Extreme winter conditions were to blame; it’s no wonder that interpreter and record keeper Wang Xiaoling doesn’t enjoy our winter. Despite the long break, huge efforts allowed the schedule to proceed. This was later underlined by Mr. Hu Zheng, director general of the Great Stone Industrial Park. He is also the chief representative of China Merchants Groups for Central Asia and the Baltic States, and chairman of the Commercial Chamber of Chinese enterprises in Belarus.

We can already see the impressive outlines of buildings in the logistical park erected by China Merchants Group, including a business centre with hotel, and exhibition and warehouse complexes. Just a few months ago, the area was wasteland; now, a city is growing before our eyes. On the day we visited, 170 Chinese builders and about 2,000 Belarusians were working.

The schedule of Chinese-Belarusian contacts is intense, as these recent events show:

April. The chairman of Minsk Regional Executive Committee, Semen Shapiro, went to China to conduct negotiations and agreed on assistance from Chinese partners in attracting investors for the Great Stone Industrial Park.

May. The Industrial Park hosted a solemn ceremony of stone laying for the new scientific research centre and a production facility to manufacture super-condensers for electric buses. The project is being implemented by Chengdu Xinzhu Silk Road Development Ltd.

August. The regions of our two countries reinforce co-operation, with President Alexander Lukashenko meeting a delegation of the People’s Government of Hunan Province, headed by Hu Henghua. Zoomlion Company initiated collaboration, to implement joint projects in Belarus for more than a year, particularly with Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ) and Gomselmash.

Our magazine cannot report as promptly as the Internet, or the daily newspapers, so you, our readers, may know even more about the Park than is written here. Soon, you’ll learn about the results of the forthcoming visit of the President of Belarus to China; undoubtedly, they’ll give new impetus to this ambitious project. Over the course of time, you’ll learn the name of the new city we’ve been mentioning. Great Stone sounds well in any language
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