Visiting Belarus visa-free

The Interview of Mr.Andrei Giro, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Belarus to Germany, for the magazine “Diplomatisches Magazin” (Germany), September 2014

“We hope for the continuation of the proven Belarusian model of political development.” 

MULTIVECTORALITY is one of the basic principles in Belarusian foreign policy. The landlocked, east European state is regarded by Europe as being very isolated, both economically and politically. Nonetheless, according to the UN, with its per capita income of 230 US dollars per month, Belarus enjoys the highest standard of living in the CIS countries. In the “Doing Business Report 2013”, the World Bank ranked it place 58 of countries with the best investment conditions. In an interview, H.E. Ambassador Andrei Giro speaks about how the economy should grow and about the political and social system in his home country.

Mr. Ambassador, what defines the Belarusian identity?

The republic of Belarus is a relatively young European state, which only came together after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Belarusian people, however, have emerged over the course of many centuries. The first principalities, such as Polozk or Turow, already originated in the 9th century. Over time, they were placed under the rulership of the Kiew princes, and afterwards they were part of the founding of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which formed a federal state with Poland in 1569. After three separations from Poland at the end of the 18th century, the Belarusian territory fell to Russia. After the revolution of 1917, the Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic was declared in 1919, which then became a founding constituent republic of the USSR in 1922. Before, western parts of the country had been incorporated into Poland. In 1939, the re-unification of Belarus took place. On July 27th, 1990, its independence was proclaimed. Without this short historical introduction, the country’s unique position at the junction of Roman-Catholic and Russian-Orthodox cultures would be hard to explain.

The Belarusian identity has been defined by contradictory influences from East and West. At the same time, Belarus was the site of many wars which have caused great destruction, claimed countless human lives, and created enormous material damages.

Belarus has always been a multinational and multi-religious state. Here, orthodox, catholic, and protestant Christians feel at home, and Belarusians, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, and representatives of other nationalities all live together peacefully. Belarusians are tolerant and respectful of other nations. There are no ethnic or religious conflicts here. Apart from Belarusian, Russian is the official language.

Belarus’ unique situation can be attributed to its rich and varied culture, which consists of various, mutually influential factors. The legendary enlightener of the 12th century, St. Jefrassinja Polazkaja forms a significant part of our culture, as does the book printer and humanist Franzysk Skaryana, who printed the first bible in the east Slavic area in 1517. Great Belarusian poets and writers of the 20th century, such as Janka Kupala, Jakub Kolas, Maxim Bahdanowitsch, Vassil Bykau, Uladzimir Karatkewitsch are also extremely important, as is the Jewish painter Marc Chagall, who enormously contributed to the worldwide fame of his Belarusian hometown Witebsk, and by association, of the entire country. The Belarusians are very proud of their history and their culture.

After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Belarus gained its independence. Since 1994, Alexander Lukaschenko is the president of the country. What defines Belarus’ political and societal system?

Belarus is, according to its constitution, a unitarian, democratic, and social constitutional state, which mandates over the supremacy and power of its region and realizes its interior and international policy in an independent manner. Belarus is a defined presidential republic. In our country, the head of state carries a significant responsibility for the constructive and successful cooperation of all constitutional organs. The political system allows for the maintenance of stability and security in the country, and is supported by the majority of the population. We could avoid many of the crises and conflicts that unfortunately plague many post-Soviet countries, and we hope for the continuation of the Belarusian model of political and societal development.

Amnesty International has criticized the violation of the rights of freedom of speech, right of assembly, and the right to demonstrate. What is the condition of human rights in your country?

According to my views, the human rights situation in Belarus is relatively good in comparison to many other countries in the post-Soviet space, but also in comparison to many other EU countries. Seen objectively, there are no role model states in this area. This is proven, among other things, by the report “Human Rights Violations in Some International States“ published by Belarus’ foreign minister, in which Germany is also mentioned.

As a founding UN member, Belarus is involved in the majority of the international human rights organs, and regularly submits corresponding reports. According to a report of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Belarus ranks 53rd worldwide on the Human Development Index, and belongs to those groups of countries with a high level of human development. Over 60 percent of adult Belarusians are active Internet users. Everyone has the right to free education and medical care, as well as the right to work. Our unemployment rate only amounts to 0.5 percent. I am convinced that such an important and sensitive topic as human rights cannot be misused by some states as a means of exerting political pressure. We vehemently reject this approach.

In the “Doing Business Report 2013“, the World Bank ranked the country at spot 58 in the list of those countries with the best investment conditions. What makes your country attractive to investors?

The creation of beneficial framework conditions for investors have significant importance for us. Our goal is to reach a spot among the Top-30 states in the “Doing Business Rating“. Nowadays, Belarus has favorable conditions for successful investing activities. The legislation regarding investments guarantees transparent, clear, and secure conditions as well as a series of preferences during the realization of concrete projects.

The investor can establish an export-oriented production in a free economic zone, and implement IT projects for high technologies under beneficial conditions in an industrial park. A qualitative new platform for the founding of highly efficient and competitive operations has been achieved with the “Great Stone“ industrial park. Through the completion of an investment agreement with Belarus, an investor receives additional guarantees for the protection of his capital and simultaneously also receives preferential terms for his investment project. Investors are particularly appreciative of Belarus’ strategic geopolitical location, its developed infrastructure with modern logistical centers, its highly qualified workforce, its political and socio-economic stability, as well as its low criminal rate.

After the economic difficulties of 2011, the economy stabilized itself in 2012 with a GDP growth of 1.5 percent and in 2013 with a growth of 2 percent, all while reporting a low unemployment rate of under 1 percent. What are deciding areas of growth?

The financial and economic crisis of 2011 could be overcome relatively quickly. The reforms in the industry, in agriculture, and in the service sector have contributed greatly to this. The government invites potential foreign investors to participate in the innovative modernization of the country through the development of newest technological trends in the fields of pharmaceuticals, bio and nanotechnology, the manufacturing of new materials, and the progression of the information and communication technologies. Simultaneously, the government maintains social standards and jobs. This corresponds with our views of a social market economy.

Among the CIS states, Belarus has the highest standard of living, according to the UN. Nonetheless, many citizens emigrate every year, particularly skilled workers. One of the reasons is the promise of better payment abroad. How can this emigration be reduced?

According to statistical reports, the average income in Belarus in May 2014 corresponded to about 420 dollars a month per person, which corresponds to a purchasing power of about 1,300 dollars. We’re well located in the eastern European average. Regarding the emigration and immigration issues, we’ve recorded a positive balance in the past 15 years. About 100,00 more people came to Belarus, than those who left the country. The numbers for legal work immigration are also positive. In 2013, 18,200 people came to Belarus and found work. In the same year, only 5,700 people left the country. It is also important to mention that the customs union guarantees the free movement of people. In this context, we do not see emigration as an acute problem. Many qualified workers return to the country after some years abroad, bringing with them new experiences and skills, and therefore contributing to the economic advancement of the country.

According to own accounts, Belarus’ foreign policy is based on “general openness.“ In Europe, however, Belarus is considered very economically and politically isolated. How do you see the future relationship with the EU?

Handling multiple capacities is definitely one of the fundamental principles of our foreign policy. The trade relations to more than 180 countries leave us no choice — Belarus is dependent on cooperating with all partners, and particularly its neighbors.

The EU is, apart from Russia, our most important economic partner. As a classic transit country, the shortest train and road connections from western Europe to Russia lead through Belarus, as well as the oil and gas pipes.

A good platform for the expansion of bilateral cooperation is the “Eastern Partnership,“ which Belarus has been involved in since its founding in 2009. We don’t aspire to a EU membership, though. We are primarily interested in the implementation of practical projects which should contribute to an increase in quality of life. In this context, Belarus supports the “Integration of Integrations,“ which introduces a closer connection between the EU and the Eurasian economic union. We stand for the creation of a mutual economic space, from Vladivostok to Lisbon.

Of course we always regrettably realize that existing sanctions of the EU toward Belarus significantly inhibit the development of bilateral relations in many areas. From our point of view, those sanctions are completely wrong and unfair. We expect that the EU completely lift all restrictive measures. It is encouraging to see some positive changes in the last years.

The bilateral relations between Belarus and Germany have been difficult on a political level. What is their state today?

Despite some political discrepancies, bilateral relations have generally developed in a positive manner. We have especially achieved good results in terms of economic cooperation. In 2013, the bilateral trade turnover reached a record sum of 4.8 billion dollars. And on a political level, there have been clear signals in the last month coming from Berlin that indicated that the resumption of regular bilateral contacts on the highest level would be possible and desirable. We’re hoping for a positive impulse from the new composition of the German-Belarusian parliamentary group in the German parliament. In the relationship between Belarus and Germany, contacts between NGOs and the partner cities traditionally play an important role. This is why the 8th Belarusian-German city partnership conference in April 2014 in Frankfurt (Oder) played such an important role in the development of bilateral cooperation. Memorial work is also an important component of cooperation. In the Second World War, Belarus lost over 25 percent of its population. Reconciliation over the graves of the fallen should bring us together in order to allow future generations in Europe to live together peacefully.

In 2012, the joint economic area between Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan was established. With this agreement, Belarus binds itself economically, and increasingly politically, to Russia. What role do strategic partnerships with countries such as Venezuela, China, or other Asian and African countries play?

Belarus has always welcomed different forms of integration in the post-Soviet space. The treaty founding the Eurasian economic union, signed on the 29th of May 2014 in Astana, facilitates the free traffic of goods, services, capital, and workers, and the implementation of a coordinated economic policy. The expected integration-effect, manifested through an increase in the entire economic GDP up to 2030, is currently being estimated at about 900 billion dollars. It is important to emphasize that the mechanisms of the integration committee’s resolutions don’t go against Belarus’ sovereignty or its economic independence. Parallel to our deepening of integration with traditional partners, we are also actively developing relations with Venezuela, Iran, Vietnam, China, and the United Arab Emirates. Our businesspeople like to visit potential partners in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. This multifaceted cooperation has very positive effects on the volume and the span of our foreign trade. For years now, China has been a strategic partner to our country. The discussions with Kazakhstan and Mongolia are mostly centered around projects in areas of transport logistics, which are meant to unite the Chinese logistical chain with the European one.

Belarus is almost solely dependent on the import of energy sources from Russia, and barely possesses any raw material of their own. Therefore, Belarus is not only working on a nuclear power plant, but also intensively in the areas of energy conservation and the use of renewable energies. What concrete plans exist in this area?

You are correct. Belarus belongs to those countries that do not have their own fuel or energy sources. In this context, the government has issued a number of tasks whose completion should guarantee the country’s energy security.

In the active phase, the first nuclear power plant is being built, which should be completed by the end of 2018. Our nuclear plant complies with all the highest international security standards.

At the same time, the government is implementing some national programs for the development of local and renewable energies, for example through the renovation and expansion of hydropower stations, promoting the use of local fuels, building bio gas stations, and encouraging energy conservation.

Until 2016, the percentage of local energy sources and renewable energies should reach 30 percent. Since Germany is the world market leader in the area of developing and applying technologies and equipment for the increase of energy efficiency and the use of renewable energies, we see very good opportunities for cooperation in that field.

In order to introduce the educational system to the entire European standard, reforms in higher education are being introduced. On the occasion of the next ministerial conference of the Bologna participants, Belarus can place an application for membership in the coming year. Is this being planned?

For Belarus, the development of international cooperation in the educational sector is very important. At Belarusian universities, over 12,000 international students from 90 countries are studying. Our country is interested in joining the Bologna process, of which we would expect particular advantages for national students, as well as new impulses for the modernization of the educational system. A task force from Minsk is intensively occupied with creating conditions for a positive decision regarding our application during the educational ministerial conference of the Bologna process in 2015.

The nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl in 1986 in the Ukraine contaminated about 25 percent of Belarus through lasting nuclear fallout. Therefore, your country has been most heavily affected by the disaster’s repercussions. How are the consequences being dealt with?

The overcoming of the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe is one of the prioritized tasks of the Belarusian government. Four national Chernobyl programs have already been implemented. Yearly expenses for overcoming the consequences of the catastrophe encompass about 5 percent of the state’s budget. Particular attention is being given to the effective social protective measures and the medical support of the affected population. Nonetheless, international support continues to be very important. The restoration and the stabilization of affected regions requires significant investment. Germany is one of our most important partners in the process of overcoming the aftereffects of Chernobyl. Apart from providing the most necessary humanitarian assistance, yearly recuperation residencies in Germany for thousands of Belarusian children have also been facilitated. In the federal republic, about 400 humanitarian organizations and initiatives are active and have been working for years to help the victims of the catastrophe. For this, I sincerely thank all the friends of my country.

Despite its extensive network of cultural institutions and various interesting historical sites and monuments, Belarus is still considered to be relatively closed to international tourism. Particularly the visa processes make travel difficult. Has a simplification of the matter been considered?

Tourism in Belarus is being actively promoted. Just consider the Ice Hockey World Championship in 2014, which was held in Minsk in May and for which many new hotels were built. The potential of our unique nature reserves, the rich cultural and historical heritage, and clean and green cities with friendly citizens could be attractive for tourists from all over the world. The continuously rising number of visa applications shows that interest in Belarus is growing. When we issue visas, we are unbureaucratic and transparent. For a tourist visa, we simply need a booking confirmation of the trip from a Belarusian travel organizer and a completed visa application form. At the same time, we are working toward further simplifying the rules. Corresponding negotiations with the European Commission over the signing of a visa facilitation agreement are already occurring.