What is the nature of the present crisis? Some consider it to be a global force inspiring us to change; others see it as a circumstance to be dealt with and endured. Naturally, it makes sense to ‘put our best foot forward’ and take advantage of the situation where we can, activating dormant reserves
The Chairman of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Vasily Romanov, is an optimist. He shares his views with Belarus magazine.
What’s the role of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry today in tackling foreign economic tasks?
I want to stress that the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is a non-state non-commercial structure. It is one of the leading business communities in the country, with wide ranging goals. It aims to create favourable conditions for entrepreneurial activity, attract foreign investments into the national economy and give practical assistance to companies in selling their products.
Implementing governmental orders to augment foreign economic services, we almost doubled their number last year (against 2007 figures). Another 12 percent of growth has been added this year.
I should note that constant growth of foreign economic services has been observed since 2002. Meanwhile, other avenues of Chamber activity are also thriving. We have opened three foreign representations (in Germany, China and Russian St. Petersburg); the goal is to develop foreign economic ties between Belarusian companies and foreign partners, raising our exports and attracting foreign investments into the national economy.
We are convinced that business meetings are useful, enabling us to agree partnerships. In this respect, we are actively liaising with the Belarus-EU Business Council. Last year, the first financial-investment forum was organised while, in 2009, we have already had three joint seminars. In the first half of the year, our foreign economic events gathered over 3,000 representatives of Belarusian enterprises and about 1,600 guests from abroad.
I’d like to especially note that, during the global financial-economic crisis, we’ve succeeded in preserving and increasing the dynamics of business communication. In the first six months of 2009, we have organised almost the same number of foreign economic events as in the whole of 2008.
We’ve also achieved success in information-publishing, with a new website bringing access to more information than ever before. In less than a year, it has been visited by over 30,000 business representatives from 113 countries. Additionally, references to our website have been added to over 50 foreign chambers of commerce and industry — with which we have co-operative agreements.
What is the focus of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry today?
As I’ve already mentioned, our major accent is focused on raising Belarusian exports, while ensuring efficient information dissemination and the attraction of foreign investments into the national economy. We offer various services to Belarusian legal entities and their foreign partners, with representations operating in each of the six Belarusian regions, with offices in 26 cities countrywide. Each legal entity has no more than 50km to travel to its nearest branch of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Three specialised unitary enterprises function within the Chamber’s system: BelInterExpo (preparing and organising exhibitions in Belarus and abroad); the Centre of Business Education (training heads and specialists of Belarusian companies in areas dealing with foreign economic and financial activity); and BelPatentService (providing services to protect intellectual property, trademarks, inventions and industrial samples).
The International Arbitration Court is operational at the Chamber as a fully-fledged member of the European and global system of such courts. Its decisions are forcibly executed in 135 countries.
As I have already mentioned, the Chamber has permanent foreign representations in Germany, Russia (St. Petersburg) and China. In addition, we have public representatives in over 28 countries.
Recently, a number of measures have been taken to improve the investment climate in our country, while encouraging state import substitution and investment programmes. Our Chamber is actively searching for foreign investors and is ready to provide assistance to every new project.
Have the Chamber’s priorities changed and in what ways?
Falling Belarusian exports to traditional markets have inspired us to embrace markets less affected by the crisis — in the Far East, Persian Gulf and South-Eastern Asia. We quickly organised first visits by Belarusian business circles to Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and the South African Republic. The results exceeded all our expectations.
During our visit to Saudi Arabia, contracts were signed to deliver BelAZ trucks, tractors, wood products, metal goods and machine building devices. The possibility of collaborating to create ‘green deserts’ aroused great interest. Saudi Arabia was given examples of Belarus-made land-reclamation products — accompanied by necessary documentation of certification and permission for importation. An agency contract was signed to deliver one container of the product to organise sample planting and conduct market research.
After visiting the Philippines and organising the first Belarusian-Philippine forum in Manila, agreements were reached to set up joint production of tractors, alongside military-technical co-operation. The project has been successfully developing, with active help from the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Belarus to the Philippines, Anna Marie Ablan; she was appointed by the Belarusian Chamber to be its public representative, after a visit to Manila.
During a visit by Belarusian business circles to the South African Republic, huge interest was shown in Belarusian tractors, tyres and condensed milk. Preliminary agreements were signed to set up a joint production facility for tractors and milk products in the South African Republic — using Belarusian dried milk.
At the moment, the Chamber is organising visits to Bangladesh, Australia, Brazil, Pakistan, Mongolia, the People’s Republic of China and some states of Western Africa. A Business Council with Serbia is planned. Moreover, Minsk has hosted the Belarusian-Chinese Trade-Economic Forum — the largest event organised since the establishment of Belarusian-Chinese economic relations. The forum gathered heads of over 50 Chinese companies, from different branches of industry. Additionally, the first Belarusian-Kazakh Economic Forum has taken place in Almaty. In late September, the Belarusian-Iranian Economic Forum took place — attracting 50 Iranian and over 150 Belarusian representatives of business circles.
It’s evident that the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has been raising its status recently, with legal entities flocking to you for help with partner relations. How would you characterise these changes?
I think the enhancement of the Chamber’s popularity is related to Belarusian enterprises’ joining new foreign markets. Some problems arise of course. Firstly, companies lack knowledge of the demands being placed on products for importation — such as technical and sanitary certification. Secondly, if it’s the first time that Belarusian products are being supplied, they know little of a country’s sales networks. Finally, there are problems with the provision of warranty and service maintenance for complicated technical products. Naturally, every difficulty can be solved but it takes significant time and financial expense.
We organise missions by Belarusian business circles to already ‘mastered’ regions. Co-operational exchanges, seminars and economic forums take place, alongside specialised exhibitions. These are more than mere excursions; huge preliminary work is involved. We select several foreign firms for every Belarusian participant as potential partners; our firms can then discuss opportunities and conclude agreements for sales. Similar work is planned for foreign entrepreneurs to visit Belarus. We are searching for Belarusian companies to act as tour guests. As a rule, from 5 to 10 potential partners are to be offered to each Belarusian or foreign company.
Owing to the assistance of the Belarusian Chamber, three foreign trade contracts have been realised; these were initially hampered as they’d been wrongly compiled.
How can we assess the Chamber’s success?
One of the Chamber’s priorities is the fulfilment of interaction with the Council of Ministers of Belarus; you can clearly see that we fulfilled all our obligations, with positive results. With our assistance, exports grew in 2008 (according to a method developed jointly with the Foreign Ministry) by almost $650m — against the government-set target of $500m.
Apart from this, our direct assistance last year enabled 19 commercial enterprises to be set up in Belarus (with about $100m statutory capital). I think these figures speak for themselves.
Exhibitions are an important part of the Chamber’s work. What are the results of this activity?
A specialised exhibition company — BelInterExpo — was set up to organise events; it’s responsible for about 80 percent of all national exhibitions of Belarus abroad. In conducting foreign fairs, the Chamber is focused primarily on reducing the cost of goods and services offered to participating Belarusian companies.
Generally, exhibitions held under the patronage of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry provide wonderful assistance to those Belarusian companies taking part. Foreign chamber members are attracted to conduct negotiations with Belarusian partners and organise additional events within and outside the fair’s framework.
What has the Chamber done to represent the interests of business groups — both domestically and abroad?
At present, about 1,700 organi-sations and firms of different forms of ownership (employing over 1.3 mln Belarusians) are full members of the Chamber. 70 percent of its members are private businessmen.
The Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is a full member of the International Chamber of Commerce and the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry. It is a member
of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry Council of the Central European Initiative’s states and a founder and active member of the International Council of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Central and Eastern Europe.
Apart from sessions of the above-mentioned structures, our Chamber annually participates in sittings of the CIS Council of Chamber of Commerce and Industry Heads. Its recent session took place in June in Bishkek.
You have been heading the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry for almost two years. Looking back, what are your thoughts? And what lies ahead?
It has been a challenge — due to the economic crisis. We have many plans, each aiming to fulfil our tasks of export growth, efficiency of information coverage and attraction of foreign investments. Our plans will be realised — despite the crisis.