Visiting Belarus visa-free

Interview by the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Belarus to the Arab Republic of Egypt, Sergei Rachkov, to the magazine Diplomacy (5th Issue, January-February 2017)

In February 2017 we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Belarus and the Arab Republic of Egypt. How do you assess the level of the Belarusian-Egyptian relations?

The Republic of Belarus and the Arab Republic of Egypt established diplomatic relations on February 1, 1992 after Belarus gained its independence. In Belarus we remember that Egypt was among the first countries in the world to recognize the independence of our country. The past twenty-five years since the beginning of diplomatic engagement confirmed the stability and sustainability of relations between the two countries as well as strong tradition of sincere friendship, mutual understanding and support.

During this time, the sides have held visits at the highest and high levels, have signed about 30 bilateral agreements, have started to hold regular political consultations, have established trade, economic, scientific, technical and humanitarian cooperation.

What are the results of the visit of the President of the Republic of Belarus to Egypt in January 2017?

The visit of the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko to Egypt was very successful. The Belarusian leader held a number of fruitful meetings including talks with the President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Ali Abdel Aal. The Sides agreed to strengthen the relations in many areas with the focus on industry, agriculture, science and technology, tourism, promotion of each other’s foreign trade interests in economic unions. After the bilateral meeting the Presidents adopted a joint declaration. Ten documents on cooperation in various spheres such as mutual legal assistance, agriculture, science, culture, sports as well as a number of commercial contracts were signed. A roadmap of bilateral cooperation will soon be worked out in order to advance Belarus-Egypt ties for the coming years. During the visit a joint business forum was held which was attended by the Presidents and a large number of businessmen of both countries. Exclusive exhibition of Belarusian machinery was organized on the sidelines of the forum. I am sure that this visit will significantly deepen the Belarusian-Egyptian cooperation in all areas.

Do you see the dynamics in the development of trade and economic cooperation between Belarus and Egypt?

In recent years, trade turnover between Belarus and Egypt has doubled and reached 186 million dollars in 2015. The Belarusian export to Egypt is dominated by high-tech products: tractors, trucks, optics, measuring instruments, machine tools, pumps. Belarus also supplies fertilizers, tires, metal products. Egypt exports to Belarus citrus fruit, fresh vegetables and fruit, male and female textile clothes, medicines, tea, coffee, yeast, plants used in perfumery and pharmacy. In 2015 Egyptian export to Belarus increased by four times.

What joint projects are currently implemented by Belarus and Egypt?

Belarus is interested in the development of trade and economic interaction with Egypt through expansion of industrial cooperation and establishment of joint ventures. The Intergovernmental Working Group on cooperation in the field of industry was created to achieve this goal.

Currently Belarus and Egypt carry out industrial cooperation in the area of tractors and trucks production on the basis of a number of Egyptian companies.

At present we are also studying the proposals of the Egyptian Side to participate in such projects as construction of facilities for sewage water treatment, drilling groundwater wells, establishment of joint production of vaccines against hepatitis C, carrying out geological exploration works.

There is a promising possibility of developing and implementation by Belarus and Egypt of a joint project in the field of remote Earth sensing and processing images obtained from space.

The Belarusian side is interested in participation of a number of its companies and enterprises in the implementation of national infrastructure projects in Egypt, including possible work with third countries.

What is the level of cooperation between the regions of Belarus and Egypt?

We are actively working on the development and strengthening of regional ties between Belarus and Egypt, and in particular with the governorates of Giza, Port Said, Alexandria, Red Sea, South Sinai, Kafr Al-Sheikh. There is also friendship agreement between Cairo and Minsk.

Cooperation between the Minsk Governorate of the Republic of Belarus and the South Sinai Governorate is especially dynamic.

In November 2016 an Egyptian Governor visited Belarus for the first time in the history of bilateral relations: the Governor of South Sinai Khaled Fouda Sedike paid a visit to Minsk. The Sides discussed issues of regional cooperation in the fields of economy, trade, industry, agriculture, tourism, sports and culture. As a result of the talks a Memorandum of Understanding on Trade, Economic, Social and Cultural Cooperation between the Minsk Governorate and the South Sinai Governorate was signed.

During the visit the Egyptian delegation also got acquainted with industrial, agricultural and tourist potential of the Minsk Governorate.

A month after the visit of the Egyptian Governor a delegation of the Minsk Governorate headed by the Deputy Chairman of the Minsk Governorate Executive Committee visited the South Sinai Governorate. The Sides discussed in detail promising areas of cooperation and worked out a road map for the implementation of the previously signed MOU.

I am confident that the Sides have laid a solid foundation for cooperation, which will successfully grow in the nearest future.

There are reports about your meetings with the heads of banks and financial companies in Egypt, including the «Afreximbank». What are the goals and the results of these contacts?

The Embassy is actively working on establishment of contacts with banking and financial institutions in Egypt. The main objective of these contacts is to find financial support of joint Belarusian-Egyptian projects. Financial support for these projects on behalf of banking and financial structures will greatly expand bilateral trade turnover, including exports of both Belarus and Egypt goods through organizing supplies to neighboring countries.

I have held a few meetings with the President of the African Export-Import Bank Benedict Oramah, with whom we have established close business relations. I have also met with heads of other leading Egyptian banks, financial and insurance companies. The main topic of the talks was how to support joint investment and industrial projects carried out in cooperation with the Egyptian Side.

Currently we are also considering a possibility of arranging the first Belarusian-African Forum in Minsk with the support of «Afreximbank».

What about cooperation between Belarus and Egypt in the humanitarian field?

We put a lot of efforts to increase humanitarian cooperation between our countries.

Great attention is paid to the development of cooperation in the field of healthcare. In May 2016 a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the field of public health between the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Belarus and the Ministry of Health and Population of the Arab Republic of Egypt was signed.

In Belarus we know and highly appreciate the achievements of Egypt in combating hepatitis C. We are interested in using the experience of Egyptian experts in the combat against this disease and would like to create a joint venture in Belarus to produce vaccines against the virus.

Cooperation between Belarus and Egypt in the field of science takes its origins from the time of the Soviet Union and is strengthening nowadays. In January 2016 the delegation of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus headed by the First Deputy Chairman of the Presidium of the Academy visited Egypt. As a result of the visit a Memorandum of Understanding between the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus and the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology of Egypt was signed. We expect  a reciprocal visit of the Egyptian Side in the nearest future.

Direct contacts between Universities of the two countries are also developing. In June 2016 a delegation headed by the Rector of the Belarusian National Technical University visited Egypt. As a result of the visit a trilateral Agreement on cooperation between the Belarusian National Technical University, Tabbin Institute for Metallurgical Studies and Kafrelsheikh University was signed.

In this regard it is worth noting that between 1991 and 2015 more than 120 Egyptian specialists and 29 PhD holders graduated from Belarusian universities.

The cultural aspect of bilateral relations is also developing. We are pleased to introduce documentary films by the National Film Studio «BelarusFilm» to the Egyptian public. In 2015 and 2016 «Belarusian Documentary Film Nights» were organized by the Embassy in Cairo for the first time. Also starting from 2015 we have participated in Cairo International Animation Forum.

In 2016 the animation film of the National Film Studio «BelarusFilm» «Spring in Autumn» was awarded for best screenplay.

Is the tourist flow from Belarus to Egypt growing?

Undoubtedly, Egypt is one of the main directions for Belarusian tourists. Egypt is traditionally among the leading countries accepting the biggest numbers of Belarusian tourists. For example, in 2015 more than 85000 tourists from Belarus visited Egypt. We are ready to continue sending our tourists to Egyptian resorts, and we will be pleased to welcome Egyptian guests on the Belarusian land.

Does Belarus intend to join the European Union?

Belarus has recently managed to expand cooperation with the European Union which lifted its political and economic restrictive measures against our country. However, despite the progress in the relations, they are still far away from their full normalization. The current level of cooperation between Minsk and Brussels is much less advanced than that of other EU partners from the former USSR.

In this context I would like to quote the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Vladimir Makei who has recently said that «we would like to have normal relations with the European Union. It does not mean that we want to become a member of the European Union tomorrow. Although no one knows what may happen in 10 or 15 years… Maybe, the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union (Belarus is a member of it) will become a common Eurasian economic space».

Could you, please, elaborate on the position of Belarus regarding the situation in the Middle East. What is the approach of the Belarusian Side toward this issue?

Belarus is following the developments in the Middle East with concern.

We cannot remain indifferent to the situation in Syria, especially to the difficult humanitarian conditions in the areas of hostilities. That is why in 2015 and 2016 Belarus sent humanitarian aid to Syria.

The position of Belarus regarding the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on the principle of peaceful coexistence between the two peoples. In this respect the resumption of the negotiating process in the closest time becomes a key instrument of the de-escalation.

Belarus has been always supporting a just and long-time settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict with the use of political and diplomatic arsenal of the existing international legal instruments.

As for Iraq we hope that the main political forces of this country will able to reach an agreement at the negotiating table. In 2015 we sent humanitarian aid to Iraq to help civilians suffering from the most difficult conditions.

Belarus supports the efforts of all the internal political forces in Libya, as well as the mediation efforts of the international community aimed at the formation and legitimation of the Libyan Government of National Accord. The establishment of  solid and strong public authorities in Libya could be achieved only by taking into consideration the interests of all the main forces in the country. Such authorities will immediately receive the full support of the international community.

Belarus calls for an early cease-fire by all the Sides of the conflict in Yemen, as well as confirms the need for the resumption of the national dialogue under the auspices of the UN. We believe that the settlement of the situation in Yemen may be based only on a broad internal dialogue in Yemen and on developing consensus decisions on all issues of the national agenda. Belarus considers it necessary to eliminate all forms of terrorist activities in the countries of the Middle East as soon as possible and achieve sustainable peaceful settlement there.

Could you, please, also tell about Muslims in Belarus?

Historically representatives of different religions, including Muslims, perfectly coexist in Belarus. First Muslims appeared on the Belarusian territory in the 8th century.

Our country is home to about 30 thousand Muslims. There are more than 25 Muslim communities in Belarus which exist in peace and harmony with people of all other confessions. In November 2016 the Grand Minsk Mosque was opened. The official opening was attended by the President of the Republic of Belarus.

In Belarus all the religions and confessions are equal with regard to the law. All religious organizations are supported by the Government, which also provides them with certain tax benefits. Our country has never faced any ethnic or religious conflicts.