Neighbours ever closer

[b]Belarus and Latvia celebrate anniversary of diplomatic relations by signing inter-governmental agreement[/b]Twenty years ago, in April, Belarus and Latvia established diplomatic relations. Coinciding with the anniversary, the border region of Vitebsk hosted a meeting between the Foreign Minister of Belarus, Vladimir Makei, and that of Latvia, Edgars Rinkēvičs. The pair signed an inter-governmental treaty regarding the Belarusian-Latvia state border, detailing simplified procedures for crossing by residents from border territories. Trade-economic, political and humanitarian issues were also discussed, with serious attention paid to Belarus-EU relations.
Belarus and Latvia celebrate anniversary of diplomatic relations by signing inter-governmental agreement

Twenty years ago, in April, Belarus and Latvia established diplomatic relations. Coinciding with the anniversary, the border region of Vitebsk hosted a meeting between the Foreign Minister of Belarus, Vladimir Makei, and that of Latvia, Edgars Rinkēvičs. The pair signed an inter-governmental treaty regarding the Belarusian-Latvia state border, detailing simplified procedures for crossing by residents from border territories. Trade-economic, political and humanitarian issues were also discussed, with serious attention paid to Belarus-EU relations.

Dialogue against economic background
Latvia is Belarus’ important economic partner, being ranked fifth in 2012 in terms of turnover. Our volume of bilateral trade has increased 4.6 percent on last year, reaching almost 3.5bn. Belarus exports petrochemicals, as well as metallurgical and machine building goods, agricultural and forestry produce and foodstuffs, while importing medicines, fish, fabrics, knitwear, cement, motors and power units, as well as metal constructions.
In all, 373 enterprises with Latvian capital have been registered in Belarus, while 1,123 companies are operating in Latvia using Belarusian capital. The National Exposition of Belarus in Latvia and the Baltic Region Belarusian-Latvian Investment Forum, hosted by Riga in December 2012, helped promote our economic relations. According to
Mr. Makei, despite a positive trend in our trade-economic relations, the potential is far from met. “Proposals are being elaborated which will be beneficial for both states. We hope that the visit of the Latvian Minister will inspire interaction between our two states,” he noted.
Mr. Rinkēvičs recollected that our foreign ministers last met almost three years ago. “I’d like to believe that Belarusian and Latvian diplomats will meet more often from now on. We’ve discussed much more in Vitebsk than was planned; we should continue searching for shared viewpoints in conducting dialogue.”
Belarus-EU relations were high on the agenda, as Mr. Rinkēvičs noted, “Contacts between Belarus and Latvia are important in strengthening and deve-loping bilateral relations while ensuring greater mutual understanding between Belarus and the EU. I’ve brought to the notice of our Belarusian colleagues how the EU views particular issues on democratic rights and freedoms. I’ve listened to the position of my Belarusian colleague and it would be naive to think that all existing problems can be settled within a single day or in a single meeting. We do not agree on everything but we’re discussing these points and are working on them. The most vital thing is that we’re ready to move forwards.”
“Despite problems which exist in our relations with the EU we’re not in deadlock,” notes Mr. Makei. “We’ve reached definite understanding regarding how we’d like to develop our bilateral co-operation with Latvia, including in the context of relations
with the EU.”

Border unites us
During the meeting in Vitebsk, the Head of the Latvian State Border Guard, Normunds Garbars, joined the Chairman of the State Border Committee of Belarus, Alexander Boechko, in signing an international agreement on the Belarusian-Latvian border regime. The document finalises the international-legal execution of the borders — as launched in 1992 — and regulates how the border should function when crossed by citizens, transport vehicles, aircraft and cargo. Moreover, it has a mechanism to deal with specific incidents and confirms the absence of territorial issues between our states.
The state border between Belarus and Latvia stretches 170km so it’s no surprise that our two nations are connected by close inter-regional and human ties, as well as by trade. A third of all Braslav families (a district centre in the Vitebsk Region) have relatives in Latvia and just 45km separate Braslav from Daugavpils. In Soviet days, many young residents of the district centre studied at universities in the Latvian city and it was often easier to find employment there than in Minsk or Vitebsk, since Daugavpils is five times closer by road. Of course, after the collapse of the USSR, some people remained there.
Sadly, relatives were left divided by the border so, in February 2012, an agreement came into operation to simplify border crossing between Belarus and Latvia for those who live within a small radius. On the Belarusian side, this covers Braslav, Verkhnedvinsk, Miory and Vidzy while Daugavpils, Krāslava, Dagda and Zilupe are covered in Latvia. Residents are registered by the local administrations, which can offer a visa for just 20 Euros (free for pensioners, those with disabilities and children under 18). Last year, over 8,000 Latvians and around 500 Belarusian used the new system.
Mr. Rinkēvičs notes more good news, telling us, “We’ve instructed our consular services to further simplify border crossing by eliminating some bureaucratic procedures. We’ll soon introduce corresponding amendments.”
According to the Chairman of the State Border Committee of Belarus, Alexander Boechko, inconveniences for Belarusians are primarily connected with the remoteness of the consulate, which is located in Vitebsk. It isn’t easy for residents of the Verkhnedvinsk and Braslav districts to visit in person, which explains why fewer Belarusians are applying for the special visa. The problem may soon be settled, as a Consular Department of the Latvian Embassy to Belarus may open in Braslav. According to the Head of the Latvian State Border Guard, Normunds Garbars, Belarus and Latvia are already discussing the issue.
The Grigorovshchina international checkpoint is currently undergoing reconstruction, with the first stage now ready. By the end of this year, it should be operating at full capacity, processing 3,000 people daily (doubling the previous figure), as well as 2,000 automobiles (up from 500-600).

Mutual understanding through arts
A new exhibition of drawings by famous Latvian teacher, historian and artist Johans Kristofs Broce is dedicated to the 21st anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two states. Hosted by the Dukhovskoy Kruglik exhibition hall, the opening was attended by diplomats, the heads of the Vitebsk City Executive Committee, art experts and artistic celebrities.
Broce’s unique works explore the churches, castles, parks, estates and houses of Riga, Livland, Kurland and Estland, captured in Chinese ink or watercolour, painted with a quill. They also feature representatives of various ethnic groups who settled in Riga in the late 18th century. Dedicated to Vitebsk residents, the show includes a depiction of Ludza Castle: once part of the Vitebsk Province. The exhibition even includes the first documented trade treaty between the territories of Latvia and Belarus, signed in 1229.

By Sergey Golesnik
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