By Igor Slavinsky
A higher level of integration between Minsk, Moscow and Astana is inspiring more frequent meetings. Not long ago, the President met the Chairman of the Majilis — the lower house of the Kazakh Parliament — Ural Muhamedzhanov, and VTB Chairman and CEO Andrei Kostin.
On welcoming his guest from Astana, Mr. Lukashenko called our three Customs Union states ‘the closest countries in the world’. As if stressing this proximity, he hugged Mr. Muhamedzhanov in greeting. Taking exports as a benchmark, Kazakhstan is our third largest trading partner in the CIS — behind Russia and Ukraine. However, in recent years, trade with this Central Asian republic has sharply enhanced. In 2010, Belarus dispatched 50 percent more products and services to Kazakhstan than in 2009 (though imports rose by an incredible 500 percent — on account of Kazakh oil-fuel). This was largely possible due to the Customs Union, as the President explains, “Huge opportunities will open up to us when the Single Economic Space becomes operational in two months’ time. Of course, we’ll face certain difficulties and criticism — as has already emerged. We’ll also fail to avoid open competition and resistance. This is natural but we are determined to pass this path with dignity.”
Mr. Lukashenko wished the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, good health — so that ‘he’ll be working for the benefit of our integration for many years’. In turn, Mr. Muhamedzhanov thanked the President for his warm reception. Moreover, he found Minsk’s weather in October warm. According to the guest, ‘our countries experience no problems’; rather, ‘some issues exist which need solution and these are successfully being realised’.
The initial part of the meeting was held in front of journalists and did not tackle concrete Belarusian-Kazakh projects but Mr. Lukashenko stressed that there are several dozen, all gradually being realised. He added that Astana can fully rely on Belarus to support its interests in Europe.
Projects were announced during a meeting between Belarus’ Prime Minister, Mikhail Myasnikovich, and Mr. Muhamedzhanov. It became clear that Kazakh businesses are showing interest in developing the Petrikov deposit of potash salts. Belarus is inviting them to buy the state share in a mobile communication operator and to build a branch of the Astana-St. Petersburg transport corridor (currently under construction) with the aim of connecting our three states even more closely.
Joint projects in the banking sphere — discussed by Mr. Lukashenko and the Chairman of VTB (Russia’s second financial group in terms of assets) — were also under focus. The Moscow banker announced his interest in the development of co-operation with Belarus ‘in the field of credit’ in such spheres as petrochemistry, machine building, agriculture and construction. According to Mr. Kostin, VTB is satisfied with Belarus’ stability. “As regards financial problems, these exist not only in Russia and Belarus,” he said, adding, “Sadly, the West — Europe — also experiences real financial problems at present, which are coming to us from there. However, we are able to settle them. I think that closer co-operation will enable us to do this.” The President promised this co-operation with VTB.
According to Mr. Lukashenko, some commercial banks are holding aloof from solving problems on the Belarusian foreign currency market. He believes it to be necessary ‘to have their faces turned towards the state’. “The present situation is an acid test for our relations with banks — including those from Russia,” Mr. Lukashenko emphasised. “Your bank is behaving worthily, assisting our enterprises with loans and helping other banks with resources. We’re ready to extend our serious relations with you and will do our best to give your bank certain advantages over those who do not understand us so well.”
The rest of their discussion was held behind closed doors.