Visiting Belarus visa-free

Interview by the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Belarus to the Kingdom of Belgium, Aleksandr Mikhnevich, to the media platform “EU Today”

Belarus in the EU — an interview with Ambassador Aleksandr Mikhnevich

In June of this year former First Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Ambassador to the United Kingdom Aleksandr Mikhnevich arrived in Brussels to take up the role of Ambassador of Belarus to Belgium and Luxembourg. He is also Head of Missions to the EU, and to NATO.

EU Today was delighted to be be given the chance to meet with the new Ambassador to discuss his country’s relations with the EU, and his own vision of how to move forward.

Although relations had been strained, in February 2016 EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels announced that they would not renew sanctions against 170 Belarusian individuals and three large companies, some of which have been in place for almost 20 years. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said that the ministers were seeking to encourage a “positive trend” in Belarus.

I asked the Ambassador what impact this has had so far on business relationships between Belarus and the EU.

“The removal of sanctions was an encouraging step”, he said. “However they were more symbolic than practical. Despite the sanctions, amongst the EU’s eastern neighbours Belarus is second only to oil-rich Azerbaijan in terms of GDP per capita.”

He pointed out throughout the period of the sanctions, the EU has accounted for 30-40% of the country’s exports.

“The most important impact of the lifting of sanctions was that Belarus and the rest of Europe could finally start rebuilding the trust between themselves”.

In the last few days, the EU has authorised the European Investment Bank to work with Belarus, and WTO accession — an ambition since 1993 — is back on the agenda, suggesting that economic liberalisation and privatisation are around the corner. The Ambassador noted that “We look to the EU for support in this process. I see accession as the best incentive to reforms that would make our economy even more resiliant, competitive, and attractive to foreign investors.

Foreign investment is key of course. “Many EU companies already have a presence in Belarus. The most interesting sectors include machine-building electronics, chemical products, pharmaceuticals, timber, and agriculture.

“Belarus is ideally located geographically between the EU and our major trading partners, Russia and Ukraine. Our high educational standards ensure a competitive and highly skilled workforce. We also offer incentives for companies wishing to establish their manufacturing facilities in Belarus. As well as free economic zones, there are incentives for companies operating in rural areas and small towns. For large and important projects it is possible to sign an investment agreement with the government to obtain personalised incentives.

He highlighted the country’s burgeoning ICT sector. In 2005, by Presidential decree, the Belarus High Technologies Park was established in Minsk with a view to creating a centre of excellence that would be attractive to both domestic and foreign companies. To date, 152 enterprises are based at the park, which works closely with educational establishments ensuring continued and sustainable growth of the sector. Software development is now one of the fastest growing sectors in the country, and in 2015 ICT accounted for 9% of exports.

During his tenure in the UK, Ambassador Mikhnevich enthusiastically promoted his country’s culture. I asked what plans he had in this area in his new role. “We would certainly like to introduce our diverse cultural heritage to the Belgian public,” he replied.

“On September 25th, Belarusian opera singer Oksana Volkova will perform at Dieleghem Abbey in Brussels.

“Our artists are already world renowned. The success of Kandinsky’s exposition in the Beaux Arts Museum of Belgium in 2013, and the subsequent one of Chagall in 2015 both met with overwhelming success. Another project is for an exhibition of paintings from the National Historic Museum of Belarus, this we are working on now.”

His experiences of the UK prompted a question that is on everybody’s lips. Brexit: what happens next?

“There is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip”, he replied with a smile, quoting the old proverb.

“The story is far from over. With all due respect for the referendum result, the Brits and the continental Europeans are far too valuable to each other, and too reasonable, to go for a divorce at all costs.

“But I do not think that a lot would change between Belarus and Great Britain after Brexit. The main difference would be that the two countries would cease to be neighbours in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy, but from my experience this is not something that could worry the pragmatic Brits. Nor would it worry the pragmatic Belarusians. I guess this is one of the things that we have in common.”

Ambassador Mikhnevich has a very clear idea of what he seeks to achieve in his new role, a role in which he appears to be very comfortable.

“In 2017, I look forward to a full normalisation of relations between Belarus and the EU. That means leaving behind the residual mistrust, and dismantling the politically-motivated obstacles to our re-engagement.

“Next September it will be exactly 20 years since the EU introduced the first of its restrictions by freezing the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. I shall do my best not to allow this sad and shameful anniversary to happen. The sanctions must not be allowed to last 20 years.”

And finally, “I would consider my mission accomplished if Belarus and the EU could finally put together a modern bilateral legal framwork. We need to replace the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which remains unratified by the EU. The only formal treaty between us now remains the archaic Economic Cooperation Agreement that the European Economic Community signed with the Soviet Union in 1989. This is an unthinkable situation for the 21st century that does the EU little credit. The sooner we turn this completely absurd and ridiculous page in our history, the better off we would be”.