Visiting Belarus visa-free

Interview by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus Alena Kupchyna for DipService Journal (Vol.10, April-May 2016)

“Working with passion is our hallmark”

Ms Kupchyna, you’ve been working for the MFA since early 1990s. That was the time for Belarus to develop its sovereignty and to form the basics of diplomacy of a newly independent state. But what was it like? What was the most difficult thing to do?

Nothing was easy, but we were able to make it so with our eagerness and enthusiasm for work. We were dedicated to enforcement of statehood, and that encouraged us to face any challenge. Nothing seemed impossible.

Shortage of qualified professionals with strong skills in foreign language was a major trouble in the early days of our independent diplomatic service. Those Linguistic University graduates that we had were generally well-trained in language, but wanted special knowledge in particular fields so much required for diplomatic affairs. Thus, my first assignment was Legal Department, today it is General Department of Legal Affairs and Treaties. There we need to have staff duly competent in both law and language, at least in English. Just imagine how “many” English-speaking lawyers there were in 1991… And it was not about legal work only, but equally true for economy and any other field.

We gained knowledge from our own practice and, certainly, learned the best foreign practices. The Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, similar diplomatic educational institutions in the Netherlands and other countries offered a great variety of studies for independent diplomatic services of ex-USSR states. Our diplomats spent from a month to a half-year, sometimes even to a year studying and training abroad, and they had success. They were able to gain experience and deep knowledge on a subject from negotiations within such a short period of time that was not imaginable for our western colleagues. I must admit, that our people are very apt.

For sure, we were in close touch with our colleagues from Russia. After the dissolution of the USSR we were to manage the matter of succession in respect of treaties between the USSR and other states. Like other ex-USSR republics, Belarus was a party to such legal relations and had to formalize it in newly executed and re-executed treaties. Consular protection for Belarusians abroad was another challenge dealt with the help of Russian consulate. Even today they provide consular assistance to our citizens in certain countries where no Belarusian representation was established.

How useful was the foreign-policy legacy of the BSSR to develop Belarus into an independent actor on the international arena?

It was extremely useful, like much of our Soviet past, by the way, beginning with the great education, engineering education in particular. So, we did not have to start from the very beginning, but inherited an active diplomatic service — the former MFA of the Belorussian SSR. It was established in 1945 to support BSSR status as UN founding member. 30 mature diplomats worked there, many were MGIMO University graduates. However, being a MFA of a part of the USSR is not the same as of an independent state. Here you are subject to the world and you have to begin communication with the world in a proper way, to lay sound foundation into the state sovereignty. We were just 70 MFA officials in 1992 facing the need to establish relationships with all other states. We were suppressed by such a great piece of work, but we succeeded. We tried our best and are still acting in the same way. Having kindled once, we keep on going under the flame of passion. Working with passion is our hallmark.

Belarus had four foreign representations when got independence: Permanent mission to the UN in New York, Permanent mission to the UNESCO in Paris, Permanent missions to UN bodies and other international organizations in Geneva and Vienna. It was the basis for us to proceed with expansion of our foreign network, and it was better than in any other ex-USSR state, save Russia and Ukraine. Moreover, certain states of former socialistic parties had their consulates in Minsk — Poland, Germany, Bulgaria, etc. We had a number of international agreements with Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakh SSR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Cuba, Slovenia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, the North Korea and other states on some local matters, like road communications, cooperation and mutual assistance, near-border activity and so on. It was a symbol of our international legal recognition, though with limited capacity.

The fact that the BSSR was a UN founding state was itself a great support, and still is today. The authority of the great deed of our nation during World War II helps us on the diplomatic arena.

Today Belarus has diplomatic relations with 174 states all over the world, including 56 at embassy level. But where did first embassies open?

In the USA, France, Israel, Germany and Poland. It was in 1992. In 1993 we established diplomatic representations in Russia, Ukraine, China, the UK, Lithuania, Austria and other countries. It was quite an active process. I remember foreign embassies opening here in Minsk — my department dealt with contracts on purchase and lease of land plots. Belarus and the US exchanged with plots and existing buildings for embassies. The Americans paid a nominal US Dollar, we paid a nominal Belarusian Ruble.

“Belarus’ image has changed”

Which country was your first destination as a diplomat? Which journey was the most memorable and why?

Poland was my first country. It was April 1992. I had never been abroad before. On 10 March 1992 I came to the MFA from the Academy of Sciences, and soon afterwards a Polish delegation arrived in order to draw a number of agreements: from a political agreement on friendship and cooperation between Belarus and Poland and consular convention to trade, economic, investment, bank and other contracts. I was a part of our return visit to Poland. I remember my first daily allowance in US Dollars, USD15 per day. Our visit lasted for three days, so, I got USD45. What a huge amount for me at that time! I spent some 15 dollars for souvenirs and gave the rest to my mother. The whole family was shocked.

The second foreign delegation for me was from Sweden. It was dedicated to succession of agreements with the former USSR. And then it all went on: in September 1992 Piotr Kravchenko, the first Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, asked me to accompany him at a CE ministry council in Istanbul. Further, in October, I for the first time attended UN General Assembly in New York. Just imagine me representing Belarus in the Sixth (Legal) Committee — one of major UNGA committees — at the age of 26, and being as an equal. My degree of PhD. in Law and experience in science was of great use then. You know, every speech at the General Assembly is a serious scientific effort. Many were surprised by our knowledge and negotiation skills.

Which exactly international talks were most memorable to you?

Every. It always takes the whole of you. I call my approach “emotional diplomacy”. One may not like the term, but it doesn’t matter while it works. Today all the information can be found on the Internet even prior to official presentation at negotiations, and the only way to achieve your goal is to be sincere and direct, to apply not only your mind and tongue, but your heart as well. It works and impresses when you see one speaking sincerely and from his heart at official negotiations.

Has Belarus changed its image on the international arena?

It has been changing for the western countries within the recent years. Previously it was forced down, but now everything is changing due to situation in neighboring countries and government’s attitude to certain key global issues. Belarus today is the only state among the six states of the Eastern Partnership (a EU project) that has no conflict, neither armed, nor frozen. We just used it and promoted communication with foreign partners. More and more delegations are invited to come and see our everyday life, how we work and spare leisure time, what are our urban and rural cites, what are our roads, education and culture. Our European partners see us as a normal European country. Recently I heard from some European counterparts that they were impressed by the number of English-speaking people in Minsk. We are going the right way keeping pace with the world with no undesirable stress. That is getting clearer to others.

You represented Belarus in the UN and other international organizations in Geneva, further in Hungary and Slovenia. For the last four years you’ve been supervising the European side of our foreign policy. Where is it easier to work, at home or abroad?

Interesting question. Every place poses its own challenges. It is more comfortable at home, here I am freer to discuss certain issues, being home I can clearly and even strictly articulate Belarus’ attitude. Working abroad is more interesting as a challenge and terra incognita. And you have to make others hear and apprehend you. You have to bring nations closer and to promote your own country’s interests on the upfield. It intrigues, it interests, but has its own peculiarities. One of them I got from my experience and now are trying to hand over to my younger colleagues: a diplomat shall never gain success in his mission abroad unless he loves the country he stays in. The guest country should become the second homeland, at least for the period of one’s stay there. As for me, I preserved this love forever. Budapest is my favourite city beyond Minsk, and Hungary is my favourite country beyond Belarus. It is and it shall always be.

“My son is not going to be a diplomat”

Most of those who come to work in the MFA have some romantic notion of diplomatic profession. Was it true for you? Has it met your expectations?

Our profession is not free of romanticism, but it is as romantic as one would see it. It is really hard work. Even lowest diplomatic officials deal with such official papers that have direct impact on serious state interests. For sure, it is romantic to be every day involved into creation of the history of our country, but, at the same time, imposes great self-responsibility and self-demand.

Diplomatic parties and strolling in luxurious and stylish dressing is romantic and pleasing, as well, but requires certain expenses. We have to look and present our country in a way, at least, not worse than our partners do. And I must admit, that Belarusian diplomats act quite well in this field, to my mind.

Young people entering educational institutions in the field of foreign relations shall be ready to face grand challenges, both personal and professional. It is hard to realize while you are young and full of romanticism. But when a family person and leaving abroad for three or four years, you have to take your family with you. Your spouse has to quit the job and adjust his/her life to you. Sometimes it is too much for a family and provokes a break. Long-term trips are especially hard for children. It seems not so bad for them to spend a few years in another country when they are small, but teenagers are very sensible to changing schools and leaving friends. Having a 15-year-old son myself, I understand the problem very well.

Is your son willing to follow your footsteps?

Not yet. When in Budapest I once asked him about what he would like to be. He could not name an exact profession, but not a diplomat, for sure. He considered it too tiresome. Diplomats’ children have no romantic attitude to this profession. They know that this job takes 24 hours a day. Now my son wants to be a lawyer. He is a very responsible young man. I try to teach him not with lections, but with my own example. Sometimes he makes me wonder. Just a recent example. As you may know, Belarusian pupils may use public transport free of charge but shall confirm their status with a school certificate. My son loses such a certificate from time to time. We often use public transport, and once, on some journey, I asked him whether he had it at the moment. He told me he had lost it. I started reprimanding him, told that we had to make several transfers and, therefore, to spend a certain amount of money. He replied that it was not so bad, as the money should go to the state budget. It was amazing to hear such words from a 15-year-old! What a level of social responsibility! It is very pleasing and makes me believe in our youth. This is the main incentive to go on working.

“I liked to be on stage”

Which country would you like to visit but have never been to?

Portugal. I am fond of Portuguese architecture and fado — a special genre of traditional Portuguese music. I would like to hear it live and authentic. There are many countries that I’ve never been to.

And which country would you prefer as a holiday destination?

Available funds rule my choice then. Diplomats are not as rich as many believe. When possible, my son and I go to Italy: he likes Italian cuisine, while I love sea — it brings relaxation and piece. Sometimes we visit Slovenia, my second destination as Ambassador of Belarus to Hungary. We have friends there. By the way, why do we talk about holidays abroad as something usual? It was impossible some 25 years ago. Just think of it and see how globally the country has changed for such a short period of time. And it is great to have such changes happened in evolutionary way, unapparent for us.

Today politics, diplomats and statesmen are very active in global social networks and have their microblogs. It is like a new form of diplomacy. What about you? Do you use social networks in your work?

Unfortunately, not. It must be my fault, but I just have no time. However, the MFA and our foreign institutions are very active in this field. I promise you to use social networks if granted the right to represent Belarus abroad ever more, but here I have more than enough publicity.

This interview shall be published in the section named Women’s Diplomacy. I know that you don’t like such gender segregation…

It’s true. Sex has nothing to do with the quality of work. It depends on whether you are a professional or not. There are no such notions like “women’s diplomacy” or “men’s diplomacy”. However, diplomacy is more difficult for women due to their certain inherent self-sacrificingness. Women in diplomacy sacrifice for the sake of their job much more than men do. No one makes us do it, we just undertake too much on our own.

Another women’s issue. In some countries there is strict attire for women in diplomacy. Thus, the Russian MFA has adopted a uniform for women. Are there any similar requirements in our country? Are there any instructions on clothing and jewellery?

We teach with our own example. There is certain code of practice, but it is applicable to all officials, not only diplomats. For instance, we may not come to work in jeans and a T-shirt, but have to be business-styled. Certain requirements are often stated in invitations to certain protocol events, say, parties. When employed in a foreign embassy and having to present his/her credentials, a diplomat shall follow diplomatic code of practice stating quite clear instructions on such occasion. I spend little time selecting an attire: I have clothes that can be easily combined with each other. I prefer dresses, it is so womanly!

Last autumn you came on stage of the Kupala Theatre in frames of theatrical readings of “Sem’” (“Seven”) play based on personal interviews with seven women whose lives and everyday work are dedicated to improvement of the world. What was it for you?

I liked it very much. I am very proud of the whole project: all the readers — not professional actors — read their roles in a beautiful and hearty way. I would like to do something similar again. Diplomats are somehow actors, too, it’s a part of the profession. I‘ve never taken part in any performance, but it turned to be pleasing. I liked to be on stage, it touched me deeply. Maybe I could do it when retired. Not in the Kupala Theatre, of course, but in my neighborhood.  I could assemble a small local troupe of retired people.

Does your work leave any spare time for theatres, concerts, exhibitions and sport?

I am fond of music, played piano myself, so, I like attending concerts. Recently I’ve been at Spivakov’s Festival opening and closing. I like visiting our opera theatre. I am glad to see it getting international, to see interesting performers, production directors, directors coming here. We often go to opera at our family dates. When abroad I try to see something new, despite a busy schedule, at least to go to some jazz-café or a restaurant with live performance. It is so relaxing, music helps to see the life easier.

I like reading. However strange it may look, but I like good detective stories. I often read in French in order to have some practice. English is my work language, while French is reserved for reading. My devotion to detective stories may result from my legal education. I specialized in judicial, prosecuting and investigative activity. I liked criminal law very much, it was easy for me. I believe, I could make some achievements in this field, but my life has gone another way.

Frankly speaking, I have no time for sport. I would feel myself hero if could do morning exercise for at least a month. Usually I promise myself to begin a new life since Saturday, and I do it. Unfortunately, such a new life never lasts longer than five days. Being home not earlier than nine or ten in the evening every day leaves no place for exercise next morning. Earlier I used to skate, renewed the habit in Budapest. Here in Minsk I swim on weekends, but has made a winter break.

You are a native of Minsk. Which are your favourite sites here? What would your recommend to visit and see here to your foreign partners?

Strolling around a historical centre must be most attractive for visitors. I like walking from the Theatre of Opera and Ballet down to the Trinity Suburb and back up to the “Verhny Gorod” (“Upper Town”).

But my favourite place lies between the Botanic Garden and the Academy of Sciences. I was born and grown up at Surganov Street, Tipografskaya Street then and Vysokaya Street beforehand. It was quite a busy lane, a part of small city circle, but everything located on both sides seems to me so bright, it is related to my carefree childhood and some special feeling of happiness.