People and ideas meet at European Week
[b]The 13th Minsk Forum crowned those discussions on European themes, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel sending the Federal Minister of the German Government, Ronald Pofalla. It was the first time that official Berlin had been represented at such a high level. On the Belarusian side, the welcoming speech was given by the Head of the Presidential Administration, Vladimir Makei [/b]The Forum gathered policy makers, experts, representatives of public organisations and journalists. In fact, a record number of participants were registered over the three working days, with over 450 people from 22 countries discussing the situation in Belarus and prospects for development, at plenary sessions and thematic working groups. The extended discussion demonstrated that Belarus and the European Union hope to leave behind the lost years of inefficient isolation and to move closer to each other. The Head of the event, Rainer Lindner,
The Forum gathered policy makers, experts, representatives of public organisations and journalists. In fact, a record number of participants were registered over the three working days, with over 450 people from 22 countries discussing the situation in Belarus and prospects for development, at plenary sessions and thematic working groups. The extended discussion demonstrated that Belarus and the European Union hope to leave behind the lost years of inefficient isolation and to move closer to each other. The Head of the event, Rainer Lindner, emphasised, “In the coming few months, events are to occur which will shape Belarus’ future. The country’s joining of the Eastern Partnership programme, aggravated conflict between Belarus and Russia, the consequences of the economic crisis and the forthcoming presidential elections significantly influence today’s situation, which is being closely followed by neighbouring European states. Not long ago, the European Commission proposed a joint intermediary plan of social-economic reform, which would have contributed to the political and economic rapprochement of Belarus and the European Union. At the same time, Russia concluded the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, aiming to attract these two states into establishing a single economic space.”
Evidently, we are on the eve of a new stage in relations, as noted by Mr. Makei. He said, “There’s no sense in attributing blame for lost opportunities. It’s important to take note of the unused potential of our co-operation, for the benefit of all Europeans. I’m pleased that this process has already begun. However, many further steps are needed to reach good relations. Judging by the dynamics of the processes taking place in Belarus in all spheres, change has occurred in dialogue with the European Union over the past two years, differing significantly from that of the ‘isolation’ period. The Belarusian leadership’s course of reform is unchangeable, so there will be no regress in relations with the EU. Modernisation and democratisation will continue, as is inevitable for such an open state as Belarus. However, changes must occur from within rather than being imposed from outside.”
Mr. Pofalla, in turn, assured those present that the EU is ready for full scale co-operation with Belarus. He believes that additional conditions are required but that the attitude towards Belarus has changed in recent times. He admitted that the EU’s interests are served by stronger relations with Minsk and noted that shared values are the only reliable foundation for collaboration.
Much was spoken of policy at the 13th Minsk Forum, whose theme was Belarus and the EU after Crisis. The economic aspects of our co-operation were studied in detail during plenary sittings and within working groups. Mr. Lindner noted that not all parties agree that the crisis is over but that certain objective facts regarding our economic liaisons prove that Belarus and Germany are now trading more actively. In comparison to last year, investments have also risen. Over the last five years, Belarus-Germany turnover has risen by over 60 percent. German interest in the Forum was evident, since major German institutes, public associations and business structures — such as Commerzbank — were in attendance. The Head of Commerzbank’s Financial Institutions, Per Fischer, delivered a speech on Belarus’ need for direct foreign investments to ensure financial stabilisation.
Of course, no concrete agreements between businessmen were expected, as the event was designed only as a forum for debate and information sharing. Contracts are likely to be signed in Frankfurt am Main, which is to host the Belarusian Investment Forum. It is the financial capital of Germany and, perhaps, Europe. This will be the logical continuation of dialogue begun at the 13th Minsk Forum.
Minsk primarily invites the EU to eliminate obstacles to free trade, as noted by Valery Sadokho, of the Foreign Ministry’s Department for Trade and Investment. He stressed, “We have many problematic issues regarding Belarusian products’ access to the EU market.” He explained that research into anti-dumping measures continues, as prohibitive duties have been operational regarding the supply of potassium chloride to the EU for the past 18 years. “These restrictions were initiated when a large number of companies were trading in potassium chloride; now, everything is under control and we have a single structure to oversee exports. Despite this, the situation has remained unchanged,” he noted. Additionally, very heavy duties are applied to carbamide-ammoniaс mixtures and autonomous quotas exist on textiles.
Mr. Sadokho also noted some positive trends. Not long ago, the Agriculture and Food Ministry agreed to help Belarusian enterprises certify their products, aiding export to the European market. “Political aspects may be important but Belarusians tend to be worried about their personal standard of living and security. Belarus leads the CIS in such matters,” he added.
In turn, the Head of the Department for European Co-operation at the Foreign Ministry’s Chief Department for Europe, Roman Romanovsky, spoke of economic co-operation in the context of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. He emphasised that, eighteen months after the project’s launch, the organisational stage is complete, with practical action now expected. Belarus is keen to see regional projects established within this initiative, focusing on construction of underground gas storage facilities, oil transportation, the preliminary exchange of electronic customs data and the development of road infrastructure. ‘In this respect, we propose to jointly develop a list of Eastern Partnership strategic projects, whose realisation will bring long-term benefits to regional collaboration,” stressed Mr. Romanovsky, adding, “So far, we can say that the Eastern Partnership has brought no tangible advantages to ordinary Belarusians in terms of, for example, visa matters or the development of small and medium-sized businesses.”
The visa issue is coming to the fore more often these days, as Belarusians believe that the EU is fencing itself from its eastern neighbours, creating a ‘Berlin Wall’. Minsk Forum has done much to solve this problem, with support from the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle. He noted in Berlin recently that ‘drastic reconsideration of the visa policy’ is needed regarding Belarus, among other states. Of course, visas cannot be abolished overnight but, as the top ranking politician notes, he is ready to initiate the necessary steps.
In early 2011, Belarus and the EU are to begin negotiating a simplified visa regime, reduction of visa costs and readmission, explains the Latvian Ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Popkovs. No doubt, many problems still require solutions but the general mood of Minsk Forum shows that real change in European-Belarusian relations is close at hand.
By Igor Slavinski