Valentin Velichko: ‘We are brothers forever’

[b]In our journalistic rally through Ukraine the first stop was Kiev. There, at 3 Mikhail Kotsyubinsky Street, at the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Ukraine, we had a meeting with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Ukraine, H.E. Mr. Valentin Velichko.[/b]From the very beginning of the conversation with Valentin Vladimirovich we had a feeling that this man is in the right place. Being a clever and subtle companion, he is abreast of dozens of different issues, easily takes up any topic and develops it in a masterly manner. However, it seems as though there is a line that he would never step across, and those inevitable sharp details that he tones down.
In our journalistic rally through Ukraine the first stop was Kiev. There, at 3 Mikhail Kotsyubinsky Street, at the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Ukraine, we had a meeting with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Ukraine, H.E. Mr. Valentin Velichko.

From the very beginning of the conversation with Valentin Vladimirovich we had a feeling that this man is in the right place. Being a clever and subtle companion, he is abreast of dozens of different issues, easily takes up any topic and develops it in a masterly manner. However, it seems as though there is a line that he would never step across, and those inevitable sharp details that he tones down.
We understand such caution and diplomacy. At one time, talking to a clever philosopher, for whom searching for the meaning of life is not a mere name, we realised an interesting principle. The scientist said, “If society is not mature enough to digest some information, it should not be disclosed too early.” In order not to do harm to the process of evolution.... Mr. Velichko showed himself during the conversation not only as a master of his trade, but as an experienced diplomat. He could even joke, but, on the whole, he was supremely self-collected: after all, we were talking about serious things such as a long-standing peoples’ friendship and today’s collaboration of the neighbouring countries. After having a conversation with the Ambassador we were sitting in the lobby of the Embassy with three fellow countrymen living in Kiev and continuing to work.
Mr. Velichko, to whom we had already said goodbye, appeared as it was lunch time and started asking us why the Belarusians were sitting there and not drinking tea and coffee? We made excuses saying that we drank in his office. Compatriots hold a pause. Valentin Vladimirovich said with mock severity, “Though you are on the territory of Belarus now, just like at home, I am in charge here, so you have to listen!” No longer protesting we were enjoying tea with sweets and biscuits from our Kommunarka. In a couple of hours Valentin Vladimirovich came again to have some our pictures taken at the monument to Vladimir Korotkevich. He even told us how difficult it was to bring our ‘classical writer in bronze’ to the territory of Ukraine…
We watched the patriarch of Belarusian diplomacy not only in contact with us, but also with the embassy staff — Yuri Sluka, Alexei Zhukavets, as well as First Secretary Marina Yesina. By the way, we are much obliged to her for the help in the organisation of our meeting with the Ambassador. And, summing up the events of the day in Kiev, we were pleased to see that the main note in music of communication playing within the walls of the embassy was kindness.

‘You are a long-headed fellow!’
Now I am the only Ambassador being the second one since the opening of the diplomatic mission. I have been serving here for almost 12 years already. My predecessor was Vitaly Vladimirovich Kurashnik — a Belarusian person who was born in the village of Divin in the Kobrin District. However, he worked and matured as a director on the territory of Ukraine: first in the Donetsk Region, then he was Mayor of Yevpatoria and later he was promoted to the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Crimea. He vacated his seat of the people’s deputy of Ukraine and became the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Ukraine. Here is a rare instance: a citizen of another state became our ambassador. He did a lot of good things for me.
I came from Sidorovtsy village of the Volozhin District and was born in 1944 in wartime. My family and I lived in Rakov, where I finished high school. My father did not come back from the war. My mother married for the second time and gave birth to three children — there were five of us in all, two passed away, and the rest, thank God, are alive. After graduating from Leningrad Technological Institute I started working on the shop floor and then took a position related to Komsomol work. I was the head at the district and regional level doing Soviet and party work in Gomel. And even at that time, in fact, we were extensively co-operating with Ukraine. I spent my whole conscious life in the Gomel Region. There was a head of the region who I appealed to. Having good intentions he always loaded me with work, as one would say now, patronised me. He noticed every mistake I made and immediately drew attention to it, but I did not take offense. And over the years I realised that life was very demanding of me. You know, I’m more demanding of those who are brainy than of those who are incapable of doing more than they can. Over time I became the Secretary of the Regional Party Committee, after having been a member of the Young Communist League, graduated from the Academy of Social Sciences in Moscow, worked in the District Committee, Executive Committee ... And one day this wise man met me and asked if I ever thought of why he had made me work that hard? Without waiting for my reply he answered himself, “Because I saw that you are a long-headed fellow”...

On friendship
As for our very strong friendship with the Ukrainians, I remember there was an anecdote in Soviet times. The leading comrades in the Chernigov Region receive a call from Kiev. They are asked, “Why are you not sowing?” “Because we are in the north!” they answer. “Then why do they sow in Gomel?” “Because they are in the south!” Yes, we were friends with people from Chernigov and we knew each other very well...
There is a Friendship Monument on the border of three countries: Belarus, Ukraine and Russia and three regions: Gomel, Chernigov and Bryansk. It was built on the initiative of young people in border areas. Before the erection of the monument the Garden of Friendship was founded on the fringe of the forest on side of Senkovka village: the Russians planted birch, the Ukrainians — chestnuts and maples, the Belarusians — willows and rowans. To this day, there remained a beautiful grove... The Festival of Friendship was launched in 1967 when local youth decided to celebrate the Day of the Soviet Youth and appealed to ‘big uncles’ as they are called now on the Internet. The latter did not remain indifferent. A year later, in June 1968, Komsomol members and youth of the Klimovsky District of the Bryansk Region of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Gorodnya District of the Chernigov Region of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Dobrush District of the Gomel Region of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic decided to meet for the second time...
Meetings are still held there, with lots of people coming: last year there were about 70,000. Various courtyards are decorated; craftsmen and artists exhibit their works. People come to see each other. This cheerful festival is held mainly under the auspices of the governors from each of the regions by turn. During the festival souvenirs and other things can be bought for both Belarusian and Russian currency, as well as for the Ukrainian hryvnias. Just like in Soviet times, everything is imbued with sincerity and goes without conflict. A good tradition ... Senkovka village is on the territory of Ukraine, and there is an idea: to herald the 1025th anniversary of Orthodoxy as the start of construction of the temple.

On diaspora
According to my status I’m supposed to be in different border areas. The Chernigov Region is the northern gate of Ukraine and it has close ties with the Gomel Region. Volyn, for example, is on friendly terms with the Brest Region. Different fairs and economic forums are held in regions. We also host the Days of Culture of Belarus which, for example, have recently taken place in Kharkov. We rented the Opera House for such celebration. Kharkov is a major industrial and scientific centre — the former capital of Ukraine. There were mainly our fellow countrymen in the hall, who were older than middle-aged. And when we talked to them in the Belarusian language, they were very happy, though being distressed about the fact that they themselves could not speak. People living outside their homeland have a craving for their mother tongue as well as for their history. I know that all people in the Ukrainian borderlands watch Belarusian television and listen to the Belarusian radio. Chernigov, Zhitomir, Rovno, Volyn... Many relatives and friends live on both sides of the border. When summer begins two and a half thousand cars cross the border at border checkpoints every day. People go on vacation and visit their relatives and friends.
Many Belarusians here ask me if the Law on Belarusians Living Abroad will be passed. However, I cannot say anything on this point. There is the Vienna Convention, and no matter which country an ambassador represents, in the letter of credence is written something like this: I ask to believe everything that the Ambassador will say on my behalf. And the head of the state signs it. So, as long as I am not sure of something I do not express my opinion. That is the position I hold...
The Belarusians, our fellow citizens, have scattered among different countries. Everyone has his own destiny. And different paths have leaded them there. They have created families, have friends, lifework there... But everyone who I happen to meet, remember his motherland and ancestral roots. In Kharkov our fellow countrymen are mainly the military, engineers and technicians. They were placed there after universities because it was one country, then got married, gave birth to children... There were large military communities in the Lvov Region, for example the Precarpathian Military District. It was the power of the USSR on the western borders. Many Belarusian officers eventually stayed there. And they are very grateful to us for paying attention to them and keeping in touch with them. Tens of thousands of our compatriots live in Ukraine and they are mostly elderly people. There are less young people here: today boys and girls know where they go and why. It is not fate anymore that throws them into a foreign land — they choose it themselves.
Valentin Velichko (centre) with guests and colleagues near the Embassy of Belarus to UkraineAlmost each region of Ukraine has Belarusian communities with different levels of social activity. Much depends on the leaders of the diaspora. General Sergey Kulikov, a much respected man, leads the Belarusian society in Lvov. A lot of good things have been done there thanks to him and Honorary Consul Igor Ivanovich Drotyak who strongly supports the Belarusian diaspora on his own initiative. They publish a newspaper, there is a Sunday school there, and compatriots receive practical help as well. There is also a wonderful choir, where they sing Belarusian songs. The community provides buses for kids, going on vacation in our Zubryonok Children’s Recuperation Camp and other Belarusian camps. Last year, for example, the choir from Lvov was invited to give a concert in Slutsk and in Baranavichi artists met with people, stayed overnight and performed their songs.
Belorussian societies, communities, fellowships are created here by Belarusian people in order to preserve their spiritual connection with the Motherland. By the way, for those who wish to become familiar with the Belarusian culture, there is such a possibility in Kiev State University named after Taras Shevchenko. There, at the Institute of Philology the students along with the English and Ukrainian languages intensively study Belarusian. The Centre of the Belarusian Language and Culture was established there, which this year has been named after V.S. Korotkevich. We have repaired the room and the audience all by ourselves. We have bought furniture and books and installed the computers and other equipment. The Centre also exchanges teachers with BSU. This is a strong foundation for the development of further scientific and cultural contacts between our countries.
This spring we together with Advisor Yuri Parfyanovich were in Donetsk, there took place the presentation of the book — Memory Asks the Word. And, of course, we met with compatriots there. The fellow countrymen in Vinnitsa have published the similar book too. And we helped them. There, by the way, was erected a monument to the participant of the Great Patriotic War N.E. Nikitin — the father of the head of the Belarusian community in Vinnitsa.
Ukraine today is an ambiguous country: people in different regions have different mentality. In the old days they used to say that we do not have any nations or nationalities — there is a community: the great Soviet people. Nevertheless each of us had the traditions of fathers and grandfathers, its own history... Today people come back to the ethnic roots, explore their ancestral past, write genealogies, and this is as it should be. There is a lot of Belarusians in the Donetsk Region, including well-known people. Gennady Chizhikov became the Head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the country, Vitali Moskalenko, Rector of the Medical University is Belarusian. Our people also hold other executive positions. Irina Orekhovskaya is a remarkable person in Kiev and a member of the Council of National Minorities of Ukraine. You can name dozens of other Belarusians: artists, doctors and teachers.
Meanwhile, the majority is, of course, the military. Piotr Vladimirovich Laishev, for example, has lived here all his life, but came from the Korma District of the Gomel Region. Being a respected man, he was a Counsellor of the Embassy of Ukraine in our country and is now actively involved in the affairs of the diaspora. Last year, we held a general meeting of heads of societies from all regions. I think, we will hold it this year and we will find means to pay for travel expenses. We invite our compatriots to Independence Day and provide different kinds of help for communities. Belarusians are law-abiding people and usually indifferent to politics. Generally, I repeat, these are people who are socially mature. Our compatriots have authority everywhere, respecting the laws of the host country. Therefore, they do not create any problems.
As a rule, we get information about the needs of compatriot organisations. In Ukraine there are a lot of creative teams working in the regional public associations of Belarusians. The Embassy maintains a file with more than two dozen of the registered teams. Practically every community has its creative team. The largest ones are in Chernigov, the Donetsk Region and Kharkov. There are organisations in Kiev and Odessa. The intensive work is carried out by the Belarusians in the Crimea, Vinnitsa, Kirovograd, and the Chernigov Region. Rovno and Zhitomir are also in good standing with us. For example, teams need national costumes, musical instruments, printed music and other literature for their work. And we consider their merits and, as they say, give credit where credit is due. We visit communities and bring everything they need as gifts. And we help them to formulate their wishes to the Belarusian state authorities. We are actively working with the Office of the Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities.
There is one more important thing to know: the Belarusian diaspora in different countries has its own features. I assured myself of that working in Latvia and Finland. The Belarusians and Ukrainians have a long common history, Slavic spirituality, one thousand and eighty kilometres of the common border. We easily adapt to each other, like brothers. Here is one interesting example. There is Glushkovichi village in the Yelsk District, where in Soviet times was the Belarusian-Ukrainian choir and artists performed in suitably matched stage costumes. Even in Moscow. And people in these places still go to visit each other. Once a Ukrainian came to the village and stayed there for four years at one countrywoman’s. They had a baby boy. Then they broke up and he returned home. After a while his wife followed him, and a year and a half she lived in the nearby the Rakityansky District. It so happened that she had a conflict with her groom’s brother. He called border guard and said: such-and-such citizen of Belarus has illegally crossed the border. Border guard came and detained her for having no registration and no customs mark. I got a phone call. I jokingly told them to punish her most severely, because this citizen could have undermined your economic strength! “No,” they replied, “we just do not know what to do with her...”

On economy
However much we, good friends and neighbours from Belarus and Ukraine, like and respect each other, no matter how sincerely we communicate, but if there are no economic relations forming the basis, there will be no prospects. Ukraine is our strategic partner. We have become the fourth country in terms of volume of trade with Ukraine, with just Russia, China and Germany being ahead of us. For the previous year our turnover was $7.9bn with a positive balance of $3.2bn. For reference: it is almost a billion more than the turnover between Belarus and all CIS countries except Russia. And 75 percent of the goods supplied by us to the CIS countries, except Russia, go to Ukraine.
So I said that we had Days of Culture in Kharkov and everything was done at our expense. The same thing is about the economy. It is necessary to find mutually beneficial projects, to build the same trade and economic relations. After all, you can drive once along the one way road. Therefore, there is a flow of traditional Belarusian products to Ukraine and vice versa, plus the development of regional cooperation. There is, for example, the joint Belarusian-Ukrainian production of tractors in Kiev and Nikolaev. Assembly, sale, service — everything is made jointly. I am sure you know that no country opens its markets to friends or neighbours — you have to win them. Thus, Mogilevliftmash has been supplied its products to Ukraine for three years. Today, we assemble 800 elevators; two models have been already certificated. And it gives the right to participate in a tender. A joint venture was established in Vyshgorod on the premises of the former military enterprise Karat. They work well. Mogilev provides 85 percent of the equipment, Sevastopol is also involved.
If our tractors are supplied, then we need towing equipment and attachments: drills, ploughs, cultivators... MTZ-82 will do for a farmer, but for a cooperative it is geared to yesterday: we need high-capacity tractors, with a horsepower rating of 350, capable of ploughing with 9 ploughs. And we are not just exposing them, we have conducted tests in the Vasilkov District, near Belaya Tserkov — there are research institutes and experimental fields there. We have been exhibited the machinery of Lidmash and Bobruiskagromash. So there is some progress going on.
Ukraine’s way is one to cooperation with us. Why am I so sure of that? You can see that there is there a reduction in steel production facilities — it is a crisis. It means that food production and therefore agriculture will be developed here instead. By the way, condensed milk produced in Rogachev, Glubokoe, Lida is supplied here... Ukraine has plenty of fertile land, it possesses one fourth of the world`s black soil. In general, it is a rich country: it is one of the world’s top ten producers of grain and metal and the first in the world in sunflower oil production. And as they say, Ukraine has the whole periodic table in its subsurface: gold, oil, gas, uranium... So, the agricultural sector will require agricultural machinery. Gomselmash has in-process stock, and it collaborates with a combine factory in Kherson, however, there has been little progress made. Today our MAZ has 18 dealers in Ukraine. There is a contract for the supply of 1200 grain carriers for this year, largely three-axle ones with capacity of 20t. BelAZ machinery has been supplied too. Each product has a niche. There are more than 80 dealers of Belarusian products in Ukraine.
Let us take another statistics. Today in Ukraine 70 percent of the production is sort of ‘preserved’ at the 1990 level. There were about 25 million of cattle and four and a half million is left now, cows amount to about two and a half million with 80 percent of them being owned by the private sector. There is almost no collective breeding in Ukraine. Therefore, experts say that the Ukrainians will buy equipment for land cultivation, create cooperative organizations, build machine and tractor stations. I think our equipment will be high enough in demand.
Here is my another observation. Production of mineral fertilizers is privatized in Ukraine. In general, 96 percent of industrial products are produced in the private or rental sector. And private interests often do not coincide with the public ones! Private owners are even not interested in raising the level of production. There is still a decline in GDP of Ukraine. In the first quarter it is 1.2 percent less than in the previous year. The private owner seeks and finds its profitable niche, and officials should think of the country’s needs. Do you know why Belarus supplied here nearly one hundred thousand tons of sugar? Because our stock was sold out. The private owner has cash turnover and keeping reserve is not profitable for him, that is your problem and you should purchase it, he says.
When building a strategy for cooperation with Ukraine, our senior managers need to know the following: today some entrepreneurs here have a hundred thousand acres of land, which is actually privatised. They are waiting for a law to legalise this property...
Here is another problem. Today, in order to increase agricultural production, Ukraine needs to purchase equipment, and this requires budget adjustments. The government has raised money, but parliamentarians cannot secure a quorum for voting: some are boycotting, others are not coming to meetings... I think these difficulties are temporary, and our agricultural machinery will be in demand on the lands of our neighbours.

On trade and economic co-operation
Today no one will invest in the economy of another country for no particular reason, so the best way is to build up joint production, no ‘do-gooder’ from Ukraine, Russia or some other country will come to us. We do the same thing with the Ukrainians. For example, the Gomel Carriage Works established a joint venture with a huge factory in Kryukov, in the Poltava Region. About one million dollars have been invested — the partners are going to produce train cars. Investors are attracted by the fact that we participate in the Customs Union. Now electric trains are supplied to Kazakhstan. As for the project we are primarily interested in wheel sets and casting, metal, and this is, in fact, forty percent of the train car. Another major project Motor Sich (a world famous company producing engines for aircraft, helicopters) has purchased Orsha aircraft plant. Do you think they will manufacture engines there? No, that is logistics. Our partners understand: Belarus is the centre of Europe, the territory of the Customs Union. It is of benefit for them, and they make investments, pay taxes, provide jobs for Belarusian citizens, and we should not be afraid of that. You see the gas pipe sold to Gazprom is filled, the second line Yamal-Europe will soon be put into service. And Ukrainian pipeline Severny Potok is projected, but experts predict that it will be worthless. You may ask why Russia does not create a consortium here. It is necessary to repeal the law, which stipulates that public property shall not be privatised in Ukraine. Abolition of the law requires 300 votes in the parliament, and there is no way to poll them... So they have a hard time paying 426 dollars per 1,000 cubic metres of gas in Ukraine, and consumers — for 500. This is even more than in Western Europe!
Life also makes adjustments to the form of international contacts and co-operation between Belarus and Ukraine. New circumstances require new approaches. For this purpose we have an intergovernmental commission on the Belarusian-Ukrainian cooperation. It is helmed by First Deputy Prime Ministers: Vladimir Semashko on the part of Belarus and Sergei Arbuzov on the part of Ukraine. But the projects are being worked out by experts from all ministries and departments. According to the results of the commission meeting, a protocol is made up and agreed. When it is signed we have a law put into effect, they prolong it by the Cabinet. At the end of May [the conversation took place in early May] dozens of different projects will be considered: on transport, energy... For example, we buy from Ukraine more than 2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, for them it is an excess, overflow. Or take cakes, by-products of sunflower oil production. We buy a lot of them too. We have well-developed cattle breeding so this is a good additive to feed-stuff. And for them it is waste: they have no cattle to feed.
And one last thing. Do you know why we have higher quality? Because we still have GOST standards and they have now technical specifications. So all is not bad that is old...

On cultural dialogue
Once, reporters asked me if the Ambassador of Belarus was satisfied with the level of cooperation between our countries in the cultural sphere. I answered no and in other spheres too! And made a pause... Your colleagues livened up. And I said I want more, and for this purpose my colleagues and I are working here. And if today the citizens and delegations from the border areas come to each other — they do not need Valentin Vladimirovich. They know each other, give concerts to each other and exchange creative teams. This happens regularly in the field of education, management and other spheres. When we were celebrating the 65th anniversary of the regions Brest residents went to Volyn and people from Chernigov came to Gomel. They brought very good teams. We can only be glad that there is communication between us. Last year, Belarus held Days of Culture in Ukraine which was taking place at the two sites. It was beautiful: there were concerts in Kiev and Lvov. Though these events are good they are one-time. Of course, they show the levels of classical arts development. Thus, the Kazakhs have recently come to Kiev: there was a band with a dozen best solo numbers and ballet. But it is not the whole culture of Kazakhstan! I do want more, but I realize that culture if to talk about the so-called cultural sphere depends on the economy. If there is economic development there will be the rise of culture, for there will be means to raise it. Then we will be able to host any events. For example, when we held an event in Kharkov, there performed the Zhyvitsa ensemble representing Mozyr Oil Refinery. The plant sent a team, provided a bus... And we, in our turn, decided on accommodation and catering for artists. And all this is often organised at the level of personal relations: if you respect me I respect you. There is cooperation between our music academies. Our universities of culture and art exchange both teachers and young talents. When we hold contests of pianists, singers, violinists, young ballet dancers, we also invite the Belarusians. And it is great: the talent may be seen and appreciated only if to show it.
Slavianski Bazaar in Vitebsk is a form of fruitful contacts, which involves huge creative forces of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. We do have them. But you have to agree that if, for example, an ensemble from the Crimea goes to Belarus to give a concert, it will cost them a pretty sum, they do not have enough money for that .... However, I know that Head of the Belarusian community in Sevastopol Alla Gorelikova wants to give a big concert in Minsk with her ensemble Belaya Rus. She is a good organiser. But how can we implement such a project? The distance between Kiev and the Crimea is 1100 km, and between Kiev and Minsk — as much as 1800 km. You cannot drive it at a time therefore you need to spend the night somewhere... It means that cultural contacts require considerable sums of money.
Believe me, we want the Ukrainians and Belarusians to communicate more often and know more about each other. First Secretary of the Embassy Marina Yesina has just recently taken Ukrainian journalists to Belarus, 32 people from all regions. They have travelled over the Gomel, Minsk and Mogilev regions for a week. Of course, it involved expenses for filling the bus, providing food and sleeping accommodation for people. But we did it! Just think about it: to interview three governors! Ukrainian journalists visited Nesvizh, Alexandria, Gomselmash, Spartak and four agricultural enterprises. It was a very extensive program. But how many impressions and interesting publications it gave!

Interviewed by Valentin and Ivan Zhdanovich
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