Privileges for partnership
[b]Italian Prime Minister’s working visit to Belarus becomes first in history of our bilateral diplomatic relations[/b]At the Minsk meeting, Alexander Lukashenko thanked his guest for the acceptance of a proposal made in April during their meeting in Rome. The first visit of the Italian Prime Minister to our country has enabled the Belarusian President to conclude that the two states ‘are opening a new stage of partnership based on mutually respectful, sincere and interested dialogue’. A range of documents, primarily of economic character, were signed at the residence (at 38 Karl Marx Street). Afterwards, Mr. Lukashenko announced that ‘Italy is our privileged partner in Europe’.Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Berlusconi met at Chigi Palace (the residence of Italian prime ministers) in April, with talks lasting until midnight. Protocol formalities fell by the wayside. In my report, I was brave enough to suppose that this was a turning point in our political relations.
At the Minsk meeting, Alexander Lukashenko thanked his guest for the acceptance of a proposal made in April during their meeting in Rome. The first visit of the Italian Prime Minister to our country has enabled the Belarusian President to conclude that the two states ‘are opening a new stage of partnership based on mutually respectful, sincere and interested dialogue’. A range of documents, primarily of economic character, were signed at the residence (at 38 Karl Marx Street). Afterwards, Mr. Lukashenko announced that ‘Italy is our privileged partner in Europe’.
Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Berlusconi met at Chigi Palace (the residence of Italian prime ministers) in April, with talks lasting until midnight. Protocol formalities fell by the wayside. In my report, I was brave enough to suppose that this was a turning point in our political relations.
Of course, this was not the first meeting of the politicians. Six years ago, their paths crossed at the 300th anniversary celebrations in St. Petersburg. Later, a series of visits at governmental level took place, discussing various business projects. With this in mind, the recent meeting in Minsk enjoyed well-prepared soil. “Much work has been done and we are now ready to enter a new level of co-operation — between our states and companies,” stressed Mr. Lukashenko.
After greetings, Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Berlusconi set about discussing economic issues. Speaking before journalists, they devoted their protocol talks to the economy. “We can now bring a powerful impetus to improving trade and co-operation in the industrial sphere,” said the President, adding, “It’s good that, since our meeting in Rome, a certain period of time has passed. During this period, I’ve met heads of large Italian companies. I’ve always said that we should be well-prepared for this meeting.”
In this respect, we should stress a visit to Belarus by Finmeccanica Concern. The Italian Prime Minister presented it as their ‘largest group of companies’. Italians have an extensive range of interests in Belarus, including energy, industry, transport and military-technical collaboration. One of the documents signed in the presence of the two states’ heads (there were four agreements in total, including one on economic co-operation) is a memorandum on mutual understanding between the Government and Finmeccanica.
Mr. Berlusconi graduated from Milan University in 1961 as a lawyer; he then went into business, establishing a construction company which became the largest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe. His family’s wealth stands at 6.5bn euros. Mr. Berlusconi’s penchant for business was a clear seed during his diplomatic talks and he stressed that co-operation with Belarus will arouse even greater interest after the Customs Union has been established.
Joint production enterprises are being discussed, with Italian businesses keen to gain access also to the huge markets of Russia and Kazakhstan. Mr. Berlusconi sees construction as a possible area of collaboration. Having demonstrated good knowledge of Belarus, he began speaking of building accommodation; he notes that Italian constructors boast interesting innovations and are currently building 300 houses a week in the region of Abruzzo (drastically affected by a recent earthquake).
Mr. Berlusconi is to personally head ‘a mission of Italian entrepreneurs’, co-operating with Belarus. “I think I will be able to head it. I’ve been heading an organisation of our businessmen for many years. I know them well and will be able to select those best able to co-operate with Belarusian enterprises.” According to the Italian guest, it will be possible to ‘discuss concrete topics during a visit by concrete entrepreneurs’. Mr. Berlusconi added that the Italian Export Credit Agency, SACE, has recently increased credit guarantees (issued by the state to implement joint Italian-Belarusian business projects) by 20m euros. This should help enhance Italian investments into our country, which are modest at present. Currently, 80 companies using Italian capital are operational in Belarus; however, the sum of direct investments is far from ideal — just $1m in the first six months of the year. The two states have greater potential of course. This was noted by Mr. Berlusconi, who stressed with sadness that his country ‘occupies only 15th position among investors in the Belarusian economy’.
Credit co-operation between Belvnesheconombank and Italian Mediobanca is the largest joint project so far. Five years ago, the Italians opened a 20m euro credit line to the Belarusian bank, which has now risen to 70m, with further growth to 300m possible. After Mr. Berlusconi’s visit, the project should inspire others.
There are plans to establish a special Italian industrial zone — a totally new project, breaking new ground for our countries. Naturally, we are very interested in its success. “From now on, our businessmen will move towards each other more confidently and will be protected in this,” said the Belarusian President after signing the bilateral documents.
Despite talks primarily tackling the economy, the visit’s political significance was evident. At the post-meeting briefing, Mr. Lukashenko emphasised that political issues were also discussed. The words ‘European Union’ were not pronounced but the EU star-blue flag was placed behind Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Berlusconi during their interview with journalists, alongside the Belarusian and Italian flags. No doubt, this added a special flavour to the meeting.
Mr. Berlusconi went in for politics rather late — in 1994, at the age of 58. The media-magnate, owner of a construction corporation, financial group and Milan club, he then founded the Forza Italia (Go, Italy) movement. At present, Mr. Berlusconi, 73, is the 12th most influential person in the world (according to Forbes).
Italy’s Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, visited Minsk some time before — on the order of the Prime Minister. He is probably the only European minister to openly advocate the lifting of well-known sanctions imposed on Belarus — speaking on the eve of a recent session on Belarus, held in Brussels. Compromise won the day as a result. Sanctions have not been abolished but are suspended. Clearly, Italy has played a not inconsiderable role in preserving the diplomatic balance (though fragile). Minsk appreciates this. “We are viewing the arrival of the Italian Prime Minister not only in the context of bilateral relations with Italy, but as an eloquent gesture of support for Belarus, broadly speaking,” admitted Mr. Lukashenko.
The talks ended movingly, with Mr. Lukashenko handing Mr. Berlusconi archive documents regarding those Italians who died on Belarusian soil. In 1943, Italy left its union with Nazi Germany and its army was obliged to choose between joining German troops or becoming prisoners of war. Many chose the second path and their fates have remained unknown for decades. However, relatives have long been searching for the truth. Mr. Berlusconi simply said, ‘A thousands thanks to you!’
By Igor Slavinsky