Paths that meet
[b]12th Minsk Forum focuses on prospects for evelopment and European interaction in the field of economics, politics and society[/b]The International Education Centre recently hosted the opening of the Minsk Forum. On the evening on November 4th, I joined the throng — including representatives of over 20 European countries — and was surprised by how much the surroundings had changed. The first snow fell that evening in Minsk and the city was solemnly light, spacious and peaceful. It seemed as if it was hovering in space… and time. New snow in Central Europe always creates this effect — as seen in Minsk, Vilnius, Kiev, Prague and Berlin. Moscow has a quite different ‘Russian winter’ while Paris lacks it at all.
The International Education Centre recently hosted the opening of the Minsk Forum. On the evening on November 4th, I joined the throng — including representatives of over 20 European countries — and was surprised by how much the surroundings had changed. The first snow fell that evening in Minsk and the city was solemnly light, spacious and peaceful. It seemed as if it was hovering in space… and time. New snow in Central Europe always creates this effect — as seen in Minsk, Vilnius, Kiev, Prague and Berlin. Moscow has a quite different ‘Russian winter’ while Paris lacks it at all.
Our natural, cultural and architectural landscapes live side by side. Just look at the 16th century Calvin Cathedral in Zaslavl. The British Ambassador was very much surprised to learn that it had been built at the time when Martin Luther and Jean Calvin were advocating the Reformation in Europe. European ideas (advanced for the age) appeared and developed almost simultaneously in Belarus. Moreover, Belarusian enlightener Symon Budny read his sermons there in the 16th century. His role in the Belarusian Protestant movement can be compared with that of Jean Calvin in Europe. Jean opened the Geneva Academy while, at the same time, Budny printed his famous Bible in Zaslavl.
Such coincidences remind us that Belarus has a long history and that the Belarusian language was the national language of the super-state of its time, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which united Europeans from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea). Belarusian history is the history of our forefathers in Europe: the Reformation is one such example.
Participants of the 12th Minsk Forum were exchanging opinions on historical matters, such as whether Belarusians or Lithuanians were foremost in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Lithuania’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Evaldas Ignatavičius, debated with Voronetsky, Belarus’ Deputy Foreign Minister, until they agreed to disagree. The Lithuanian Minister noted, “We’d like to return to the borders we enjoyed centuries ago, dismantling ‘walls’. We’d love to make the Baltic Sea region a single tourist, economic and cultural space. Then, we’d jointly represent our history to Germany (which organised the Minsk Forum) and to the whole of Europe.”
It’s sometimes necessary to recollect the past, so that we can better understand the present. The topicality of the EU’s new policy towards Belarus was stressed by the Head of the Presidential Administration, Vladimir Makei, in his welcoming speech at the forum. Having summed up the positive aspects of Belarus-Germany relations — such as the dynamic development of trade-industrial ties, the renewal of the two states’ Economic Co-Operation Council’s work and contacts between ministries — Mr. Makei underlined that ‘the fall of the Berlin Wall on pan-European scale’ was an important step towards the dynamic promotion of co-operation.
Speaking of Minsk-Brussels dialogue, he stated that, today, ‘that which should have taken place much earlier is being observed’, adding that, ‘gradually and steadily, the rudiments of Belarus’ confrontational approach are giving way to pragmatism and common sense’. Owing to this, much more has been achieved recently than over past years of ‘unpromising isolation’.
Afterwards, Mr. Makei said that Belarus has a right to expect further constructive steps on the part of the EU. “It’s impossible to simultaneously stretch one hand towards political dialogue and to create obstacles to the development of trade and personal contacts with the other,” he stressed. Minsk is ready to participate in the Eastern Partnership — both in multi-lateral and bilateral formats. According to Mr. Makei, the Eastern Partnership will bring balanced interaction with partners rather than radical change to Minsk’s foreign policy. He believes ‘the construction of a Europe able to respond adequately to 21st century challenges would be incomplete without Belarus’.
Many global projects have appeared in European plans recently. Whether dealing with counteracting illegal migration or the laying of new transport and energy routes for Europe, they would hardly be possible without Belarus’ participation. In fact, energy is one of the Eastern Partnership’s four platforms; it is a link in a longer geo-strategic chain. The EU is keen to diversify its energy supplies and routes. Top level European diplomats often visit Central Asia, showing great interest in local energy resources. Transit networks are vital to create a new energy ‘Great Silk Way’, with new global meaning. The major ‘destination’ is Beijing — viewed by many as a future global economic leader. The European Union is enhancing its ties with China; meanwhile, the shortest path from Berlin to Beijing passes through Minsk…
Our country, in turn, is interested in liaising with Europe as much as possible; the profit is evident. Exports to the EU already account for 44 percent of sales, while Russia imports only 32 percent of our products.
The Head of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s All-European Co-operation Department, Vladimir Serpikov, has announced that Belarus proposes to set up an International Business Forum as part of the Eastern Partnership’s second thematic platform (which deals with economic integration and convergence with EU policies). State agencies are working with the EU, with an inter-departmental group established for each platform. These groups are supervised by the Foreign Ministry, the Economy Ministry, the Education Ministry and the Energy Ministry. Belarus’ First Deputy Prime Minister, Vladimir Semashko, is co-ordinating the whole system.
The diplomat believes that the Eastern Partnership offers several evident advantages — such as greater access to the European market, formation of a free trade zone, targeted financing of projects of international significance, visa regime liberalisation, enhancement of the fight against illegal migration, modernisation of border infrastructure, co-ordination of energy transit, formation of a single energy market and broader collaboration with Europe’s financial institutions. He notes that Belarus was the first partner-country to elaborate concrete projects within the programme — offering promising projects regarding the construction of electricity transmission lines, while developing transport corridors and improving border ecology. Mr. Serpikov adds that, from the point of view of official Minsk, the bilateral dimension of the programme is yet to be fully-formed. He thinks it feasible to make it more than a ‘discussion club’ and would like it to contribute to the economic and social development of partners, strengthening Belarus’ well-being and sovereignty.
The International Minsk Forum is often called Belarusian-German, as it was initiated by Germany and gathers many politicians, deputies, experts and public figures from Germany. This is natural of course. From a geopolitical point of view, Paris is more interested in its Mediterranean Sea neighbours while Berlin is known for its Eastern policy. However, the latter is not only the offspring of Willy Brandt…
The German Chancellor came to Prague to attend the Eastern Partnership’s constitutive summit. “The participation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Eastern Partnership’s constitutive summit in Prague clearly defined the special role of Germany, as well as the fact that Berlin intends to do everything possible to ensure this programme works,” stressed Hans-Dieter Lucas, Ambassador Plenipotentiary for Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus at Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The German Ambassador to Belarus, Gebhardt Weiss, also spoke of Belarus’ European prospects. He read a welcoming speech on behalf of the recently appointed German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, stressing that the Eastern Partnership programme — adopted at the EU summit in Prague — opens a new door to Minsk-Brussels relations ‘via phased political association and economic integration’. Mr. Westerwelle assured that — within the framework of the Eastern Partnership and any other bilateral relations — Germany wishes to help ‘the process of modernisation and liberalisation of European Belarus’.
The shift from words to deeds matured long ago. Moreover, as Lithuania’s Deputy Foreign Minister Evaldas Ignatavičius stressed, Belarus is ready for the Eastern Partnership as no other state may be. The idea was supported by Stefan Eriksson, the Ambassador of Sweden (which currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency). In this respect, geopolitical readiness is in focus — including the lack of inner conflict, achievements in the social and economic spheres and the preservation of jobs. These parameters are especially significant during today’s global crisis.
The continuous Chair-man and organiser of the Minsk Forum, Reiner Lindner, stressed that 2009 is significant for jubilees. It is the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, which greatly influenced the situation in Europe. He believes this year is also marked by Belarus and the EU making their first true steps towards each other.
By Nina Romanova