[b]In 2009, several events of long-lasting significance took place, defining the state’s foreign policy for 2010[/b]Last year, Belarus joined the Eastern Partnership programme. Meanwhile, there were several high level visits to Minsk, with Belarusian top officials travelling abroad. Relations with Europe have been temperamental for many years, so today’s dynamics are a revelation. Additionally, the relations with our closest neighbours — Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia — have been dynamically developing. The signing of the Customs Union agreement in Minsk was perhaps the most important event.
Last year, Belarus joined the Eastern Partnership programme. Meanwhile, there were several high level visits to Minsk, with Belarusian top officials travelling abroad. Relations with Europe have been temperamental for many years, so today’s dynamics are a revelation. Additionally, the relations with our closest neighbours — Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia — have been dynamically developing. The signing of the Customs Union agreement in Minsk was perhaps the most important event.
Progress will continue through 2010, building on the foundations of the last year’s foreign policy. In my view, the main goal of 2010 will be the harmonisation of two strategically important foreign political vectors.
The four platforms of the Eastern Partnership programme create a framework for true co-operation with the EU and with neighbouring states — proceeding from shared regional interest. We should strengthen our bilateral liaisons and create possibilities for more fruitful co-operation across the board. Relations with the EU are likely to improve in general, raising the level of political interaction.
Many are surprised that Belarus is so well-prepared for participation in the new European programme, keen to move into concrete projects. The EU’s new policy regarding the six countries of Eastern Europe should gain constructive dimensions this year.
Experts say that Belarus will be focusing on the development of its transit possibilities: the development of the second and ninth transport corridors, issues of energy security, the simplification of customs procedures and the implementation of e-declaration for cargo. Jointly with Ukrainian and Lithuanian partners, we’ve prepared about 20 regional projects within the partnership, in the fields of energy, energy security, transport, transit, border management, tourism and ecology and regarding the general cultural and historical heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Strategic projects include the creation an Odessa-Brody-Gdansk oil pipeline, as well as the supply of electricity from Ukraine to Lithuania via Belarus, and co-operating in the field of renewable energy (solar, water and wind).
A major aim is to raise the reliability and security of the energy system, constructing a corridor from the former Soviet states to Poland. The attraction of European investments into the construction of gas storage in Mozyr is also a huge part of the plan.
A Klaipeda-Vilnius-Minsk-Kiev motorway is on the agenda, alongside a European-level ‘Viking’ rail link (from Odessa to Klaipeda via Minsk). In the customs field, infrastructure is being modernised, with personnel trained to the highest level.
Belarus’ Foreign Minister, Sergei Martynov, met foreign ministers from the Eastern Partnership’s member states in December. He then stressed the necessity of bringing in financing from European institutions as soon as possible, noting the importance of prompt decision making to bring a liberalised EU trade regime for country-members. From our point of view, the European Partnership will benefit both Belarus and Europe.
The Eastern vector retains importance, of course. In 2009, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia signed their Customs Union, within the framework of the EurAsEC. This landmark agreement will have long-term strategic significance, influencing the geopolitical alignment of world forces.
A huge market is being created. Aggregate stocks of oil stand at 90bn barrels, while total GDP totals $2 trillion. Aggregate turnover is set to reach $900bn, with agricultural products worth $112bn. The Customs Union opens good prospects for its members — activating the establishment of joint production, lifting customs and administrative barriers to trade, and facilitating the import of resources and components from third countries (cleared at the Customs Union border, then freely sold within the single customs territory). A single customs tariff is to be applied, in addition to other single measures to regulate the trade of goods with third countries.
Excluding border control, customs and state control will shift to the external border of the Customs Union. This will facilitate transit potential, while aiding transit of cargo from Europe to Asia (where the major markets of Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Japan are situated). Our country also hopes the Customs Union will stimulate the domestic car building industry.
Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia should see their GDP grow by an additional 15 percent by 2015. Our united economy could be significantly boosted once customs restrictions are lifted, with mechanisms of deep integration working within our single economic space.
Within the framework of the Customs Union, Belarus plans to agree an affordable price for Russian gas and profitable conditions for oil supplies. Minsk insists on equal terms for all legal entities within the Union, to ensure fairness. This won’t be easy to achieve. Major changes cannot be achieved overnight and not without problems. It’s a complicated issue of matching national interests and finding compromises. Much effort will be needed in 2010 to harmonise our three states’ interests and adopt responsible and mutually beneficial decisions. Time will tell.
In 2010, Belarus will surely focus on levelling of its foreign trade balance. The reasons for losses in 2009 are clear, rooted in the global crisis. Foreign trade is vital to our country, so guides our foreign policy accordingly. The Centre for International Studies at the Belarusian State University is to provide expert support during Belarus’ participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme. This is to include four seminars regarding promising spheres of liaison.
Meanwhile, the country is working on strengthening its international image via Belarus’ Strategy for Cultural Presence in the World and Innovative Technologies for its Realisation. This strategy will govern the interaction of various mechanisms of foreign policy, including those within the cultural sphere. It will take into consideration modern political, economic, socio-cultural and information processes, and will be of an exclusively applied, practical character.
Culture is an inseparable part of a country’s image and an important part of the state’s foreign policy. New information and communication technologies raise possibilities several fold. The world’s leading countries have shown that cultural diplomacy can help achieve national interests. Belarusian culture has far to go before fully revealing its potential. This relatively untapped resource could bring recognition for the country within the international arena.
In 2010, we plan to complete work on the History of Belarusian Diplomacy photo-archive. Additionally, we are to continue studying problems of trans-border co-operation. The scale of our collaboration is modest in comparison to European states but is interesting. Five Euroregions are operational in the country: the Bug, Nieman, Ozerny Krai, Belovezhskaya Pushcha and Dnieper. Each boasts its own features, history and experience. The delegation of authority to their local bodies aids economic development, since they act as innovative structures, managing their own regional affairs. In addition, they form a foundation for the establishment and development of innovative structures within themselves, influencing development by modelling success. The Euroregions are also working hard to attract investments and set up development centres. A system of bilateral investment guarantees is operational, with free economic zones in each region.
There is so much to look forward to in 2010. Every project is assessed for its practicality and real applications, ensuring that both scientists and diplomats are satisfied.
By Vladimir Ulakhovich,
the Director of the Belarusian State University’s Centre
for International Studies