Prague accents

[b]Reference: [/b]The Eastern Partnership Initiative was approved by the European Union on March 20th, 2009, aiming to intensify co-operation between the European Union and Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan on an equal and non-discriminatory basis. Official realisation began at the first summit of the Eastern Partnership on May 7th in Prague

The Eastern Partnership Initiative was approved by the European Union on March 20th, 2009, aiming to intensify co-operation between the European Union and Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan on an equal and non-discriminatory basis. Official realisation began at the first summit of the Eastern Partnership on May 7th in Prague.

“I see a huge city — a city full of people the glory of which pinnacles sky-high” noted Princess Libushe, “Prague shall be its name.” In Czech, ‘prague’ means ‘threshold’. So began the history of Prague... the legend appears in most tourist guides, but everybody interprets the point of the ‘threshold’ depending on their route...

Czech Prague recently made it into history, having kicked off the new Eastern policy of the European Union. On May 7th, the Eastern Partnership summit came under world media scrutiny as a landmark in European history. The declaration adopted at the summit details mutual interests and liabilities, with mutuality being the key word...

Princess Libushe prophetically noted ‘a huge city full of people’ — as seen at the Congress Centre of the Prague summit. Entering the tremendous press-centre on the second floor, the chatter of hundreds of journalists dictating urgent messages to their editors in every language imaginable assailed me...

As often happens, major political events inspire rumour and interpretation is crucial. “The initiative of the European Union defies Russian influence in the East,” noted the British Guardian newspaper. It sees the Eastern Partnership as a reaction against the influence of Russia in its ‘back yard’. Major French publications echoed the sentiment. Neither Britain nor France seemed much interested in strengthening relations with Eastern partners — in fact, President of France Nicolas Sarkozy, Prime Minister of Spain Josй Luis Zapatero and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown all preferred to send representatives to the summit rather than attend in person.

Of course, European leaders admitted the significance of their partners located to the east of the Bug. I agree with Toni Barber of the Financial Times, who wrote that ‘the Eastern Partnership offered by Poland and Switzerland in 2007 included Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and represented a significant improvement on the absurd “European neighborhood policy” of 2004, which included the eastern neighbours of Europe alongside Libya, Syria and the Palestinian Autonomy’.

Let’s give the citizens of the European Union the right to independently estimate the ‘absurdity’ of the neighborhood policy, where the Libyans and Palestinians received much greater financing than Belarusians, Armenians and Georgians. Of course, attempts to link Belarus’ membership of the Eastern Partnership with some challenge towards Russia must certainly be repudiated by us Belarusians.

The reaction of the Belarusian delegation deserves further exploration. Looking at the geopolitical context of the new ‘strategic imperative’, it’s too simple to characterise it as a tag-of-war with Russia. I can’t agree with many of my colleagues who assailed their editors with sensational stories on the Eastern Partnership being directed against Russia.

Six countries included in the Eastern Partnership share the interests of Euro-Atlantic Security. It is a question of strengthening infrastructure and institutions from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The borders of the Eastern Partnership are the same as the routes taken by Caspian energy resources. Certain members of the Eastern Partnership have been involved in the well-known Nabukko project. Europe has several geopolitical projects existing in severe competition but that doesn’t automatically mean they are ‘against’ anyone. Belarus is located at the intersection of world routes, so needs to ensure good relations with all sides.

Problems can be converted into opportunities. For the most part, the European Union has been moving towards economic reconciliation with the East. Such movement of commerce, not war, has always been beneficial for Belarus.

Moreover, the Eastern Partnership is not so much an EU project as one belonging to a historic Baltic and Black Sea format. Sub-regional co-operation between governments was evident as far back as the 16th century. Now, Baltic and Black Sea co-operation is being rebranded to include free economic zones. The Eastern Partnership is important for Belarus, since it is sure to bring practical benefits.

As for political speculations regarding the Eastern Partnership being directed against Russia, Minsk has gone out of its way to show its position concerning this question.

At the plenary meeting of the summit, the Belarusian delegation presented its official position concerning co-operation with the EU as part of the Eastern Partnership. The delegation head stressed that equality is key, with each member state’s interests being equally important. The Eastern Partnership should not become a struggle for influence; it must serve the interests of all, breaking down borders.

On his way home from Prague, our delegation head — Deputy PM Vladimir Semashko — told journalists that Belarusian diplomats took the most active part in preparing the Declaration of the Prague summit, significantly amending it. In particular, it insists that the alliance is economic and social in character, not political, and does not aim to establish new borders within Europe.

“Belarus should stand firm to ensure perfect relations with Russia. Nothing can replace its importance for us; we receive most of our energy on preferential terms from Russia and it’s our main market. On the other hand, we should collaborate with Europe,” Mr. Semashko stressed.

The plenary session also saw European Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner underline that ‘stability, clarity and safety should be our clear aim’.

Four baskets. Speculations concerning Russia are not the only misunderstanding regarding the Eastern Partnership. Judging by questions put by journalists to the heads of the European Commission (primarily to Josй Manuel Barroso, Xavier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner) many hope to see it answer all Europe’s problems. Azerbaijani and Armenian journalists wanted to know how the EU will divide Nagorny Karabakh between them. The Georgians were keen to find out on which side of the barricades the European Commissioners stand (that of Mikhail Saakashvilli or that of his opponents). Kiev newsmen are placing their faith in mother Benita (Benita Ferrero-Waldner once joked that she felt like the mother of the Eastern Partnership) making peace between quarrelling Ukrainian politicians. It may sound amusing but it’s clear that member states have innumerable unresolved conflicts — some of which may be hazardous to the European Union.

The EU cannot become a guardian angel for every country in the Eastern Partnership. One journalist asked Ms. Ferrero-Waldner if the project is placing all six countries in one political basket. She replied that ‘every country is individual, with the chance to build projects from their own interests’. “We invite partnering countries and they independently decide which projects are suitable for them,” she explains. “The Eastern Partnership is a foundation for co-operation, based on political and financial support for each member state.” It’s in this way that Belarus sees its participation in the Eastern Partnership.

Vladimir Semashko, telling journalists about results and plans for the future, underlined that the Eastern Partnership gives Belarus opportunities in four specific areas. Firstly, it promotes the economic sphere — establishing conditions to raise export volumes to the EU. It also allows us to bring ourselves up to date with new technologies and investments. Thirdly, it can help Belarus realise its transit potential and, lastly, it can aid the simplification of the visa regime.

He believes reform of the energy sphere will be a crucial aspect of collaboration with the European Union. It is necessary to consider not only state monopoly but private business. Over the past seven years, annual GDP growth in Belarus has stood at 9.5 per cent (with capital investments growing by 20–30 per cent). Even in the difficult first quarter of the current year, they amounted to 20 per cent, showing that Belarus is entering a new stage.

It’s generally accepted that success is planted in the equipment and technologies invested in previously. Belarus is grasping modernity by the horns, rearming its economy.

In Prague, the Belarusian delegation met representatives of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Operations run by the European Investment Bank in Belarus were discussed, including long-term loans at preferential terms. Such credits send a clear signal to the masters of European business.

Naturally, it’s not easy to attract big money. We need to take the initiative — since the European Commission won’t be bringing such projects to our door. All avenues should be explored to promote national interests.

Some of my colleagues underestimate the Eastern Partnership’s power to inspire business in Belarus. Perhaps our European Commissioners fail to understand what the Partnership is for. Various meetings took place in Prague — such as that regarding the ‘south corridor’s new silk way’. Some met to discuss construction of the Nabukko gas pipeline. Many state projects are already being promoted on a grand scale and one might hardly find a better stage for them than a European summit...

The Belarusian delegation made use of the opportunity, with Mr. Semashko personally describing the advantages of priority transit routes in Belarus. He sees the South–North corridor connecting the Black Sea and the Baltic Region being profitable for everyone, including Russia.

A declaration has been signed on co-operation in the field of energy and transit, with projects between the Ministry of Energy, the EU and the European Commission planned for the next 18 months.

All these initiatives lead Europe towards greater integrity, interconnection and the need for a simplified visa regime. Europe without barriers is not a motto but an economic need.

One of the most important aims of the Eastern Partnership is the development of human contact. Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Martynov has called the existing visa regime discriminatory — filled with complicated bureaucracy, high fees and obstacles to communication. The elimination of barriers has been delayed for some time.

However, other problems exist in our bilateral relationship with the European Union. We lack a fundamental document governing co-operation. An agreement on partnership and co-operation between Belarus and the European Union was drafted as early as the start of the 1990s — but was frozen in 1996, as is well known. Today, Belarusian diplomats are keen to renew negotiations concerning this document, giving it another polish — ready for signing.

Prague’s Charles Bridge is a symbol of European integrity. Its thirty sculptures are unique — a feast for the eyes. Most visitors are attracted by the sculpture of St. Jan Nepomutskiy, making wishes by touching its base. Perhaps the saint answers such prayers. If so, he may hear those directed at communication, openness, understanding and mutual respect… the themes of the Summit.

Active and successful co-operation requires information to be shared. This was especially obvious in the Media Hall, where journalists from Belarus, Poland, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria chatted spiritedly — first in English and then in Russian. Many confessed that they missed the partnership of Soviet times, where close neighbours often met. Today, an Armenian and a Canadian are perhaps more likely to liaise than a Belarusian and a Ukrainian.

We must strengthen ties between partnering countries, satisfying our thirst for communication.

Nina Romanova
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