Igor Petrishenko: ‘We aren’t rewriting history, we’re creating it’

Every year, dozens of Russian delegations visit Belarus, and vice versa

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Russia, H.E. Mr. Igor Petrishenko: ‘We aren’t rewriting history, we’re creating it’

Mr. Ambassador, how far do our villagers and industrialists meet at forums? How intensive is our inter-regional interaction?

I’ll paraphrase Exupéry: ‘If contacts grow in intensity, it is for a reason’. Every year, dozens of Russian delegations visit Belarus, and vice versa. It’s impossible to say which heads of Russian regions are yet to visit our country. There probably aren’t any.

The President of Belarus has many times repeated that, thanks to interregional communication, the potential of Belarusian-Russian interdepartmental interaction has been maintained and increased. Mr. Lukashenko has perso-nally welcomed the heads of Russian regions on arrival in Belarus, which says a great deal.

The 1st Forum of Regions, which took place in Minsk in June 2014, was devoted to the development of agro-industry. The 2nd, hosted by Sochi in 2015, focused on the Union State industrial policy. The 3rd Forum, scheduled in Minsk again, will concentrate on our social-economic policy.

There is no doubt that our forums are meeting the hopes of heads of regions and enterprises: following the Sochi summit last year, we signed two hundred contracts, worth tens of millions of Dollars, creating an ‘instant’ effect.

Some results can hardly be estimated in figures. Forums act as a catalyst for developing direct contacts between our regions and businesses. This is vital to tackle growing competition on world markets.

At present, direct trade and economic relations are maintained by Belarus with virtually all Russian regions — including with more than sixty via direct agreements on long-term co­operation. It’s already a tradition at forums to conclude new contracts and agreements on cooperation.

Belarusian and Russian cities, areas, districts and regions are united by around two hundred effective contracts, agreements and protocols on interaction relating to economics and the spheres of sci-tech, trade and culture. Around eighty major joint assembly facilities have been established across almost forty Russian cities. Over two hundred commodity distribution network sites exist within the Union State using Belarusian authorised capital, and over three thousand companies use Russian funds. Production cooperation unites over 8,000 Belarusian and Russian enterprises, and there are more than a thousand joint companies, all working through inter-regional ties.

Are expectations being met?

Yes, of course, we’d love to make faster progress but, importantly, there is progress. Our hopes are focused on the further development of the Union State, expanding and strengthening inter-regional ties.  

In a few days, on June 25th, the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation will celebrate the 24th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations as sovereign states. We’ve been building the Union State for twenty years. What is yet to be achieved and of what should we be most proud? What arguments are needed to convince Belarusians and Russians of the necessity of further developing our integration?

I don’t think that Belarusians or Russians need to search for additional arguments to see the necessity of our integration. Anyone, at any agricultu-ral or industrial enterprise, and in any Belarusian or Russian family, can simply and intelligibly describe the advantages — better than any diplomat. They would emphasise that not everything can be measured in tonnes, deca-litres or cubic metres. In 20 years of collaboration, we’ve created our common humanitarian, social and economic space, from Brest to Vladivostok, wi-thout borders and with very few bureaucratic obstacles. Belarusians and Russians enjoy equal rights in education, social security, and health care, as well as relating to issues of buying property and doing business. It’s hardly possible to find anywhere else in Europe, or around the world, with a similar example of such strong friendship and close integration.

Let’s address a common question: what would have happened if we hadn’t established the Union State?

I’m convinced that we wouldn’t have today’s equality of rights. We’d still have a true border and all the related problems of crossing. In this respect, we’d have been foreigners to each other, despite Belarusians and Russians viewing themselves as brothers.

We wouldn’t have close economic relations and Belarus would have never become Russia’s fifth largest foreign trade partner. It’s unlikely that a Belarusian tractor, combine harvester or truck would have been made using half Russian components, since this is the result of our industrial cooperation. Our products — made in Belarus and Russia — would have been more expensive for each other, as there would have been more barriers to trade.

Regarding the West, Russia would have needed a powerful military presence, obliging Belarus to ensure its own military safety. Protection of external borders would have been much more expensive.

It’s unlikely that we would have faced such unanimity and support at major international venues — such as within the UN or the OSCE. Accordingly, I believe we’ve met the expectations of our people to a great extent, although each avenue of cooperation retains potential for extension. This is especially true of the economy, where we need a uniform industrial policy and closer coordination in the spheres of agricultural industry and transport. We talk about knowledge-intensive and hi-tech production, so why not then enter third countries’ markets with joint products, under the ‘Union State’ brand? Barriers continue to exist regarding free movement of goods, access to state procurements and state orders in the field of defence.

Not all issues are yet clarified and agreed in the system of ensuring equal rights for our citizens. Conceptual problems have been solved but some remain, such as recognition of medical documentation. There’s much work ahead and goals to be met.

In 2015, commodity turnover between our countries fell considerably. Can interregional cooperation significantly improve the situation?

Those who are gathering for regional forums, arriving in Minsk for the third event, are in no doubt. Spea-king seriously, it’s clear to Belarusians and Russians that our problems stem from the international situation, including the policy of sanctions and the oil market crisis.

Domestic reasons for reduced turnover include falling consumer demand (due to growing retail prices) and the limits of people’s income, as well as deteriorating terms of credit, due to increased risks, and the exchange difference caused by fluctuations in currencies.

Speaking of what should be done, we need to focus on the key goal. It’s important to find commodity turnover growth drivers, to make use of all the advantages of our integration — both within the Union State and as part of interregional cooperation. We should avoid creating additional problems in terms of restricting delivery of goods and pursue a coordinated industrial and agro-industrial policy.

We also need to deepen our regional communications, focusing on the final result. Production co-operation should be expanded, new assembly production should be established and localisation of facilities enhanced.

This is no easy task but there is no other choice. I often tour the Russian regions. In 2015 and early 2016, I had around forty meetings in Moscow alone, with heads of Russian republics, districts and regions. All my counterparts agree with this view. Much depends on people in regions developing direct contacts between producers and final consumers, as Belarus understands.

Relatively small Belarus has been Russia’s major trade and economic partner for many years. Are Belarusian goods remaining competitive on the Russian market and what does the concept of a ‘domestic producer’ mean today? Are Belarusian goods ‘domestic’ or ‘foreign’ for Russians?

As I’ve said, I visit Russian regions quite often and am always pleased to see our MAZ vehicles on the road, as well as BelAZ trucks in pits, ‘Belarus’ tractors and Polesie combines in fields and Belarus-made buses and trolleybuses on passenger routes. They can rival the competition easily. We’re establi­shing trade houses and dealer centres for sales and maintenance of our machi­nery across Russian regions. Demand for our machinery is steadily high and, as purchasing power improves, further sales will come.

I’d rather not speak about food, as it enjoys wide popularity in Russia and demonstrates steady demand. It’s important to sustain our high level of quality and remember to advertise our Belarusian exports (our export enterprises tend to ignore this).

The question does arise whether we can call a tractor Belarusian when half of the prime costs result from the purchase of Russian components (excluding metal and energy). Is it ‘pure’ Belarusian? Our industrial cooperation raises the question of how to define domestic products.

The policy of sanctions and reciprocal measures, which Russia has imposed on Europe, highlights the concept of a ‘Union State Product’, as I said earlier. It’s probably easier to avoid sanctions from third parties. Think of jokes about Belarusian shrimps and oysters. We buy fish and seafood for processing, so that the final product becomes Belarus-made, in line with all regulations. Why shouldn’t we do so?

At most meetings with representatives of Russian regions, the President of Belarus has called for coordinated policy in the sphere of industrial co­operation, in addition to establishing joint manufacturing facilities. I wouldn’t say that we’re near completing our mission, but our efforts are reaping results.

Humanitarian cooperation will become a focus of the 3rd Forum. ‘Folk diplomacy’, twinning and cultural ties are among its important components. As the Head of the Belarusian diplomatic mission in Moscow, how do you view their development?

The level of our contacts is high, without need for exaggeration. God willing, we’ll continue at this high level. There’s more to ‘folk diplomacy’ for Belarusians and Russians than the interaction of public institutes, such as those between Belarus and Italy, or between Russia and France. Our nations perceive these as brotherly and kin relations.

At present, about 3 million Belarus-born people live abroad; over 520,000 Belarusians live in Russia alone. According to various calculations, around 1.2mln citizens viewing themselves as ethnic Belarusians live within the Russian Federation. It’s the largest Belarusian diaspora in the world. Over 70 public organizations of Belarusians are registered: associations, cultural-educational societies and centres, as well as national and cultural associations. These are engaged in establishing communication with the ethnic homeland, preserving national, cultural and spiritual traditions. Sociological research at one of the major independent analytical centres, Levada Centre, last year registered ‘a record indicator of Russians’ stating that they viewed Belarus as the closest friend of their country over the past decade’: about 80 percent declared this view.

Speaking of ties, I should note that Belarusian cities enjoy twin-city relations with over 300 cities across almost forty countries, including around 140 in Russia. However, time and the situation have introduced changes to these relations. Development of economic, investment, innovative and social projects (realised as part of this ave­nue) should become the focus, in my opinion, of twin-city and partner-city relations. There’s major unrealised potential in this respect.

Co-operation in education, culture, tourism, health care, youth policy and sport also looks promising. Such work at the level of cities should (and can) promote development of the whole complex of relations between our countries, becoming a catalyst for further regional integration.

Much can be said about our cultural ties. Geography and depth of contacts in this sphere are huge. Many joint artistic projects are being realised and dozens of diverse art festivals — some widely known beyond the Union State — are being held; among them are the ‘Slavianski Bazaar in Vitebsk’, ‘Listapad’ (in Minsk) and ‘Slavonic Theatrical Meetings’ (in Gomel). Last year, a grand Belarusian-Russian festival was hosted by Rostov-on-Don: ‘Youth for the Union State’. There are many other examples. On the eve of the 3rd Forum of Regions, the Days of Moscow will be organised in Minsk, boasting a rich programme, including cultural events. In June, the Days of Belarusian Culture will be held at the Embassy’s Business Cultural Complex in Moscow: ‘Belarusian Seasons’. It’s hardly possible to list all events but I’ll mention one date. This year, the International ‘Slavianski Bazaar in Vitebsk’ Festival of Arts is ce-lebrating its 25th jubilee. I’m convinced that Belarusians and Russians will mark this date impressively.

Meanwhile, despite very successful activities aimed at developing cultural ties at state level, I’d like to say that it would be great if individuals would become more actively involved in streng-­thening cooperation. I’m speaking of ‘sponsors’ and socially responsible businesses.

Another topical issue on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War is the preservation of our general historical heritage and historical memory, which has been exposed to serious attack recently. How can we oppose attempts to rewrite history to please today’s political environment and how can we save young people from the influence of extremism and nationalism?

Thank you for this topical question. Truly, we have seen this attitude towards our past. I’m proud that my compatriots (the absolute majority of them) are immune to historical amnesia; they are not ashamed of speaking openly. We, Belarusians, have the benefit of peace and harmony. We all know the high price paid and we appreciate this wealth; we’re carefully protecting it.

Belarus has long been paying its debt to fallen heroes, as well as to surviving veterans. All soldiers of the Victory — partisans, undergrounders and soldiers at the front — are the centre of attention, and not just on state holidays. They enjoy state care always, with ve-terans living without household related problems. The slogan of ‘Nobody is Forgotten and Nothing is Forgotten’ is of enduring value. In their first school lessons, pupils learn of our ‘villages on fire’ (619 Belarusian villages — inclu-ding Khatyn and Dalva were burnt with their residents by the German Fascists) and of the brutal ‘death factories’: there were about 250 camps of Soviet prisoners of war, 350 jails for the civilian population and 186 Jewish ghettoes on the Republic’s territory.

Every village has, at least, a simple obelisk topped by a red star. We also have no anonymous or forgotten burial sites. This is one of the best examples and lessons of our historical memory. There are around 9,000 monuments, memorials and mass graves in Belarus. You can hardly find an obelisk in our country neglected. Where else in the world has a new Great Patriotic War Museum opened recently? Only in Belarus! Moreover, it’s truly unique, without rival in Europe. Avenues named after Rokossovsky and Zhukov, as well as Pobediteley (Victors) Avenue will never be renamed in Minsk. The legendary ‘T-34’ tank, 100m from the Presidential Administration in Karl Marx Street, will never be replaced.

Much can be spoken on the subject but, importantly, we aren’t rewriting textbooks or history lessons. When supplementing them, we use only verified facts. We aim that neither extremism, nor nationalism ever take root on our land. In this respect, we can act as an example.

By Nina Romanova

Moscow — Minsk
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