Outpost of good neighbourhood

[b]When two regions neighbour each other, they always have a special relationship — even when those regions touch across national borders. Naturally, people share a common past, with traditions of good neighbourly relations [/b]Belarusian-Polish regional co-operation is a good example of a trans-border relationship. The Consul General of Belarus in Gdansk, Ruslan Yesin, who has a Ph.D. in Political Sciences, shares his views.
When two regions neighbour each other, they always have a special relationship — even when those regions touch across national borders. Naturally, people share a common past, with traditions of good neighbourly relations

Belarusian-Polish regional co-operation is a good example of a trans-border relationship. The Consul General of Belarus in Gdansk, Ruslan Yesin, who has a Ph.D. in Political Sciences, shares his views.

Mr. Yesin, Polish politicians and public figures regularly discuss the domestic political, social and economic situation in Belarus, while the Polish media often touches on the Belarusian topic. What inspires such interest in us?
You’re right. I think the main reason is the common history, culture and Christian traditions of our two peoples. While we have different political systems and views on integration processes in Europe, we are united by close family relations, especially along the border regions. Also, a number of native Polish people live in Belarus, while many Belarusians by origin reside in Poland. Besides, we are witnessing active development of commercial, economic, educational, cultural and scientific ties. In my view, it’s quite natural for Poland to be interested in its Eastern neighbours — especially on the threshold of important political campaigns.
I wonder how Polish Pomorze people see our shared historical past.
Differently. The most acute debates relate to the period of the Rzecz Pospolita (1569-1795) and the Warsaw Pact (1955-1991). Some emphasise the political, others — territorial, the third — the cultural and spiritual component. As an historian, I tend to follow the latter. During my work in Poland, I’ve become confident that both Belarusian and Polish citizens care greatly about veterans and about preserving the memory of the victims of our two world wars.
I’m proud that, with joint efforts to mark the 65th anniversary of Belarus’ liberation from the Nazis, we managed to install a memorial plaque at the Stutthof Concentration Camp Museum in honour of the 1,002 Belarusians who perished in the concentration camp during World War II.

Today, Poland is an active participant of integration within the European Union, while Belarus acts similarly in the post-Soviet area. How does this impact on Belarusian-Polish interregional co-operation?
Every integration union strives to prove to its citizens and neighbours that its model is the most efficient, serving as an example to other countries. The CIS and EU are no exception. We seek good neighbourly and friendly relations not only with Poland but with Russia, Ukraine and other neighbouring states. I’m confident that the majority of Poles are keen to maintain and extend collaboration with Belarusian regions. For instance, the number of Polish visitors to Belarus is annually growing. In 2010, our office alone issued more than 6,000 entry visas, with half requested by those intending to visit relatives, friends or native places in Belarus.
Over the past six years, many agreements have been concluded between the regions of our two countries: Mogilev and Kujawsko-Pomorskie, Minsk and Pomorze Zachodnie, Gomel and Lubuskie. These are not just statistics; agreements have ripened, continuing the efforts of our countrymen, creative intellectuals and businessmen undertaken at regional level throughout Belarus and Poland.
Regional co-operation has driven forward contacts between business associations such as Gomel branch of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) and Lubusz CCI, Gomel branch of the CCI and Zachodnie CCI, and Gomel-Raton Free Economic Zone and Kostrzyn-Slubice Special Economic Zone. In promoting interregional ties, we assist in setting up co-operation between towns and other administrative areas. Recently, we set up new twin relations between Grodno and Slupsk, Postavy and Wejherowo, and Novopolotsk, Polotsk and Gdansk. Relations already exist between Zielona Gуra and Vitebsk, Chojnice and Mozyr, Zlotow and Nesvizh, and Mogilev and Wloclawek.

How do economic ties between Belarusian and Polish regions develop?
For the past five years, we’ve witnessed steady positive dynamics regarding economic relations between our states. The Consulate General works in close liaison with our Embassy in Warsaw to promote Belarusian products and services on the Polish market, while attracting foreign investments into Belarus. I’d like to note that we’ve seen particularly high interest from Polish businessmen and investors in Belarusian companies. One such example is the Belarusian-Pomerania regional economic forums — arranged by us since 2007. Hundreds of delegates from the Polish business community take part. As a result, Belarusian enterprises have begun supplying liquid gas, processed and sawn timber, biomass, foodstuffs and chemical products to the North-Western Region.
In terms of investments, Pomorze investors are demonstrating steady interest towards Belarus. Investors from Poznan and Wejherowo have recently begun working at Vitebsk Free Economic Zone while Gdansk companies are finalising negotiations to purchase a Belarusian wood-working factory. They are also keen to build hotels in Belarus or to convert historical sites for this purpose.
I must note that Gdansk ports are able to accept oceanic tankers, offering good transhipment and storage capacities and well-developed infrastructure. The potential for our co-operation is huge. Moreover, in past years, we’ve managed to successfully realise major projects. For instance, in the mid-1990s, Gdansk port handled a batch of 16,000 Belarusian tractors. In 2009, Polish ports received two ships under the Belarusian flag, transhipping 204,600 tonnes of frozen fish and 580,900 tonnes of seafood for Belarusian companies.
Prospects for creating Belarusian wholesale structure in Pomorze for promoting food and non-food products to the Polish market are being investigated, as is the opportunity of using Gdansk Port’s logistical centre for transhipping Belarusian export goods. The Grodno-Gdansk railway branch line could support this idea.
Chinese exporters have managed to establish their own wholesale structure in Gdansk’s suburbs, supplying their goods in large quantities across Poland. It’s an example we could follow. Obviously, creating foreign trading companies in Poland could help promote our goods, so that they appear more widely on the shelves of Polish stores and wholesalers.
In terms of tourism, the idea of establishing a Belarusian-Polish centre on the Warsaw example is worth attention. Each year we are issuing more and more visas to Polish citizens wishing to visit Belarus as tourists or businessmen. In the past, the Consulate General has joined Mogilev, Minsk, Grodno and Gomel travel agencies in promoting tourist and health recuperation facilities in Belarus; clearly, this is paying dividends.
It’s obvious that the Consulate General is working hard to strengthen trade and economic relations. What other directions are top priorities?
Our main priority is the protection of the rights and interests of Belarusian citizens within the territory assigned to our consulate. Special attention is given to issues relating to children and to Belarusians involved in road accidents. We also assist our companies in settling disputes in Poland. Naturally, summer is our busiest time, as we try to look after Belarusians travelling to the Polish Baltic coast for holidays. We place adverts in the media giving advice on how to behave in the host country and how to avoid unnecessary complications. We’re always ready to aid our citizens in the most difficult situations.

Taking into account the territorial proximity of our countries, how does the Belarusian diaspora feel in Pomorze?
There are many native Belarusians living in the North-Western Region of Poland; some estimates state more than 15,000. It is second only to Bialystok. Reasons for moving to Poland vary; some arrived directly after World War II, others came to reunite with their families or to study and decided to stay. The Belarusian diaspora is quite diverse and their opinions regarding the situation in Poland and Belarus are rather different. However, they are united by a desire to preserve their traditions and culture.
The largest association uniting not only the Belarusian diaspora but Polish friends of Belarus is the Poland-Belarus Society. It is known for organising numerous cultural events in Pomerania, which always enjoy nostalgic interest among the Pomorze Belarusians. Naturally, the Consulate General tries to promote these interesting events as much as possible.

In what way?
For instance, in 2007, Khatka Belarusian Cultural Association erected a memorial plaque to honour our classic poet Yanka Kupala, in Gdansk, supported by the Consul General of Belarus in Gdansk, Mikhail Alexeichik (1998-2004). Later, in 2010, this association suggested naming a street in Gdynia after famous Belarusian writer Yanka Bryl. It’s wonderful that one street in Gdynia now bears the name of our famous countryman.
In January 2011, we held a Belarusian weekend for the first time in Gdansk, organised under the patronage of the Pomorze Provincial Governor’s Office and Gdansk authorities. Around 1000 Belarusians and friends of our country took part, enjoying a photo-exhibition entitled ‘A New View on Belarus’ and a Christmas concert by ‘Belarusian Soul’ folk band, from Gomel.
This February, Kujawsko-Pomorskie Voivodship hosted the Mogilev Region’s Days of Culture and Economy. It included a concert by a soloist from the Belarusian State Philharmonic Society, Honoured Artist of Belarus Irina Dorofeeva, hosted by Artus Palace (Torun). There was also an exhibition entitled ‘Belarus and Its People’. In April, the ‘Giuseppe Verdi — Messa da Requiem’ International Music Festival opened at Olivia Cathedral in Gdansk. A major performance by the Shirma State Academic Choir of Belarus opened the event.
Another significant event was the launch of the Belarusian House in Kashubia, at the Pomorze Education and Promotion Centre in Szymbark. It opened with a photo-exhibition entitled ‘Unusual Belarus’, while Grodno folk band ‘Berestaviskia Muzyki’ performed.
Meanwhile, the ‘Earth — the Basis of Motherland’ exhibition, dedicated to the 130th birthday of Yakub Kolas, was brought to Poland by the Yakub Kolas State Literature and Memorial Museum, hosted by Chelmno History Museum.
Another remarkable event marked the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Our colleagues from the Russian Consulate General helped organise the celebration, on 9th-11th August, hosted by the Russian Science and Culture Centre in Gdansk. In particular, there was a joint photo-exhibition exploring the modern life of our countries, including several joint film projects. Interest in this campaign was huge. Over several days, hundreds of people visited. Recently, the Presidential Orchestra and that of the Internal Affairs Department of Minsk Executive Committee toured and were warmly received by their audiences.
In addition, there are some interesting initiatives from our associations. In Lubuskie Voivodship, there is the Polesie Friends Society, which regularly gathers Belarusians from Polesie regions in Bialkow. Also, the Yakub Kolas Fund in Chelmno is known for popularising our famous writer and poet’s works. Co-operation between non-government organisations can help towns like Bobruisk and Chelmno liaise. The authorities of both have agreed to establish partnership relations.
Our sportsmen also contribute to co-operation, with our young Belarusian ice hockey players taking part in regional tournaments in Pomorze each year. Our footballers from Postavy regularly take part in competitions in Wejherowo, while Mogilev football players go to Torun. Boxers from Baranovichi attended games in Gdynia.
Belarusians have always shown great interest in Gdansk, during summer time in particular, as it’s a well-known summer resort. I’d assume that the Consulate works not only with Gdansk, despite its significance in Poland.
For many people, Gdansk is not only an historical place of interest but a Baltic Sea resort. The galloping centrifugal forces of the 20th century formed the modern history of the Polish state system in this very place, without exaggeration. Gdansk is filled with special importance for the entire country. It is the ‘political capital’ and the leading scientific powerhouse for the Polish state. Special significance is attached to commemorating the memory of the tragic events which took place in Poland in the 1970-1980s, as well as the Solidarity Movement. To this end, the European Solidarity Centre is being built on the site of the former Gdansk shipyard, where the first Polish President and Solidarity movement leader Lech Walesa worked. It will accommodate the Solidarity Movement History Museum and will be used to promote the Polish democracy model.
It is, indeed, very interesting to work here. At the same time, we never limit ourselves to Gdansk. We cover the five voivodships of Pomorze, Pomorze Zachodnie, Kujawsko-Pomorskie, Lubuskie and Wielkopolskie: over a quarter of the country’s population and a third of Polish territory.

Finishing our interview, what do you see as prospects for Belarusian-Polish relations at an interregional level?
Regional co-operation remains a top priority for the foreign policy of Belarus — an essential element of the ‘good neighbourhood belt’ surrounding our country. Poland places similar emphasis on regional liaisons within the framework of its European policy of neighbourliness.
For many years, we’ve been fruitfully working with Polish regions. This isn’t just passing luck; we’ve made systematic efforts on both sides to promote friendly relations — based on our common past and neighbourly future.
So, to answer your question, I’d say that regions seek to maintain and further expand co-operation in the spheres of trade, investment, education and culture. On our side, we’ll keep assisting our companies and organisations in finding partners within the territory of the Consulate, promoting Belarusian goods, attracting investments and popularising Belarusian culture in Poland.

Viktor Mihailov
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