Statement by Andrei Eudachenka, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Conference The Baltic States and the European Neighbourhood Policy (Riga, 23 November 2007)
Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Republic of Belarus and the Baltic States are connected by old historical, cultural and economic bonds. It is now for over 700 years that we share with each other our best achievements in different spheres of life. Direct people-to-people communication between our nations has never been interrupted. Nowadays there are Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian communities in Belarus that together mount up to 10 thousand persons. In turn, over 150 thousand ethnic Belarusians live on the territory of the Baltic States and make their contribution to strengthening our relations.
In my capacity of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs responsible for trade and economic co-operation, I can note with true satisfaction the increase and expansion of interaction between Belarus and the EU in this sphere.
Throughout last years the European Union has been ranking as the second largest trade partner of Belarus right after the Russian Federation, and now the EU is even exceeding our traditional CIS partner in terms of share of Belarusian exports.
Starting from 1997, the commodity turnover between our country and the EU has increased by over 7 times. If ten to twelve years ago the share of the EU within Belarusian exports was from 8 to 10 percent, right now this share is about 50 percent. In the past period of 2007 the trade between Belarus and the EU has grown by another 11,3 percent.
The Baltic States occupy a very special place in our commercial relations with the EU. Around 10 percent of overall volume of Belarusian foreign trade falls on these countries. In the past 9 months of 2007 the commodity circulation between Belarus and the Baltic States has nearly reached 1,5 billion US Dollars, and it is quite possible to amount to 2 billion by the end of this year.
The above indications are the evidence to the fact that the new conditions in trade of energy resources between Belarus and Russia have not affected neither the pattern of trade between Belarus and the Baltic States, nor our trade with the EU as a whole.
Yet another important contribution to strengthening of our economic co-operation is provided by over 500 joint ventures and foreign enterprises with participation of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian capital, which are active in Belarus, as well as by around 600 joint ventures and foreign enterprises with participation of Belarusian capital that operate in the Baltic States. Mutual investments into each other’s economies amount to 600 million US Dollars. The Belarus-Latvia Investment Forum recently held in Riga and the National Exhibition of Belarus in Vilnius should further elevate these indicators.
I would like to stress that the removal of some negative factors trade between Belarus and the EU could reinforce our co-operation. We disapprove the decision to withdraw access to the EU Generalised tariff preferences from Belarusian exports to the EU market. This politically motivated step looks especially irrational against the background of opening by Belarus of its market to European imports. Starting from 1 January 2008, for the first time in history of Belarus, we introduce a zero tariff rate for imports of over 1000 items, including machinery, equipment, mechanisms and etc., which are needed for modernisation of the Belarusian industry. European companies will be provided with broader access to the Belarusian market with regard to the above-mentioned categories of goods.
It is not correct for the EU, which positions itself as an open market advocate and spares no effort to liberalize international trade, to apply to Belarus such obsolete and forbidden by the generally accepted commercial rules as import quotas. We draw attention of the European Commission to this fact and hope that the next 2008 year will be the last one for the European Commission to keep quotas for the imports of Belarusian textiles to the EU market.
A more responsible approach on the part of the European Commission to Belarus’ accession to the WTO could also be constructive to strengthening our trade relations. There is a certain political deadlock imposed by the Commission in the dialogue of Belarus with its European partners on this issue. We are well aware of the support that the Baltic states are lending to us in this process. Our growing economic co-operation with Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, in particular, and with the EU, in general, requires that mutually acceptable approaches should be worked out in order to unblock the current situation with regard to Belarus’ accession to the WTO.
Geographic proximity and multiple transit routes across the territories of our states offer practical opportunities to develop interaction in the sphere of transit. In 2006 alone Belarus moved over 20 million tons of its goods via the ports of Baltic nations. For a number of years Belarusian economy has been providing up to 25 percent of the work load of the port of Klaipeda and up to 30 percent of that in the ports of Ventspils and Riga. There are real opportunities for increasing the transit via Belarus and the Baltic States of the third country freight. This requires our combined efforts and active interaction with potential consigners from Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Turkey and other states.
Belarus is an important transit state between energy producers of the East and energy consumers of the West. About 40 percent of westward oil and nearly 25 percent of gas imported by the European states from Russia are being transited through Belarus to Central and Western Europe via “Druzhba” system of pipelines.
Besides, electric-power system of Belarus is an inseparable part of the Belarus-Russia-Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania energy ring. There are intersystem connections between Belarus and Poland, Belarus trades electricity with Ukraine. We do not exclude the future transit of the Ukrainian electric energy through Belarus to the Baltic states, when they are faced with electricity deficit after the Ignalina nuclear power plant decommissioning.
Belarus together with the Baltic states and the European Union is ready to seek for collective answers to the modern challenges in the energy sphere so that to ensure the balance of interests of all players on the energy market – producers, customers, and transit states. Special emphasis in this respect is put on the second round of consultations between Belarus and the EU in the energy sphere with the aim of arriving at implementation of joint energy projects of mutual interest.
Every transit state has not only advantages but drawbacks too. Illegal migration is one of such drawbacks. In comparison with the other states of the region, the situation on the common Belarus-EU border is the most favourable one with regard to combating illegal migration. Annually there are only up to 10 registered cases of illegal migrants crossing the Belarusian-Polish border. And for Latvia and Lithuania this figure currently equals to zero. This is contrary to the other states of the region, which leak thousands of illegal migrants a year to the EU, and the frontier authorities of the EU member states have to seize and send them back.
At the same time strengthening of the border control in order to counter this threat should not result in building a new Schengen wall for law-abiding citizens. Soon a Belarusian national will have to pay 60 euros to enter 9 new EU member-states, including our immediate neighbours – Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. I cannot say that this is a prohibitive price for our people, whose active incomes are growing by 10–20 % annually. Yet, very soon a Belarusian will think twice before travelling to the EU on vacation or as a tourist. There are so many attractive destinations in other parts of the world. Lifting visa barriers, or at least reducing costs of EU entry visas for citizens of Belarus would meet the goals of the EU itself in terms of ensuring the basic principles of the freedom of movement and facilitating people-to-people contacts.
Belarus has the right to rely on the Baltic nations understanding of the role and place of the Belarusian state within the European Neighbourhood Policy. Belarus is a young European state, pursuing its own external policies based on the priorities of good neighbourhood and long-term partnership. There are no insurmountable dividing lines – neither ideological, nor cultural, nor historical — between the Belarusians and other people of the Wider Europe. Belarus and its citizens respect and share common European interests and think that mutual understanding, as well as respect for national values of every European people, form a common and secure European family.
Belarus cannot be put aside in the process of building while forming the common areas of strategic partnership on the European continent. Without our country construction of an integrated market between the West and the East is practically impossible to accomplish.