Interview by Vladimir Chushev, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Belarus to Serbia, to the magazine “CorD” (July 2015)

Two decades of diplomatic relations between Belarus and Serbia are characterised by a continued rise in cooperation, but also the discovery of many new areas, primarily in the field of the economy and tourism, the potential of is not sufficiently utilised.

Fruitful cooperation between Belarus and Serbia  is not only developing at the central government level, but rather extends to connecting institutions, culture, tradition, scientific potential, cities and regions of the two countries – says H.E. Vladimir Chushev, Ambassador of Belarus to Serbia, in this interview for CorD.

Are you satisfied with the quality of current bilateral relations between Serbia and your country?

I would always want there to be more, but I can evaluate the level of bilateral relations between Belarus and Serbia as being quite high. Regular political dialogue is conducted at the highest and high levels. In 2013-2014, official visits of the presidents and foreign ministers of our countries were organised. In June this year, the President of the Serbian Parliament visited Minsk.

We understand that Serbia is an EU membership candidate and, naturally, the country wishes to enter into this international formation as soon as possible. It is clear to us that Belgrade has taken on a series of commitments, including the aligning of its foreign policy with that of the EU. However  we appreciate the efforts of the Serbian leadership to expand contacts with our country.

Cooperation is developing between the higher education institutions of Belarus and Serbia. Agreements have been signed and cooperation implemented between the Belarus State University and the University of Belgrade, the Belarus National Technical University and the Higher Railway School, the International State Ecological University “A.Sakharov” and the Scientific-Research Institute of Novi Sad, the universities of Gomel and Novi Sad, Mogilev and Kragujevac, Vitebsk and Niš, as well as the police and military academies of the two countries. There is also a valid cooperation agreement between the National Academy of Science of Belarus and the Serbian Academy of Science and the Arts (SANU).

The two countries recently marked the 20th anniversary of the establishing of bilateral relations. Could you single out the most important moments in the history of relations between Belarus and Serbia?

Diplomatic relations between the Republic of Belarus and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were established on 15th November 1994. The 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Belarus and Serbia was marked in November 2014 with bilateral cultural events  – Days of Belarusian film were held in Serbia, while in Belgrade there were two photo exhibitions, the BelTA exhibition on the history of diplomatic relations of Belarus and Serbia, and the exhibition of contemporary posters of Vladimir Tsesler, renown Belarusian artist; in Belarus this occasion was marked with the issuing of a special series of stamps.

In the past 20 years, relations have gradually evolved between our two countries, which have common cultural and historical roots, share Slavic literacy and Orthodox religion.

In 1996, the Embassy of Belarus was opened in Belgrade and the Serbian Embassy was established in Minsk. The President of the Republic of Belarus has visited Serbia four times: 1998, 1999, 2009, and 2014. Heads of the Serbian state have visited Minsk twice (1996 and 2013).

The development of the Belarusian-Serbian inter-parliamentary dialogue contributed to the 2013 formation of national friendship groups in the parliaments of the two countries. The Friendship with Belarus Group in the National Assembly of Serbia is led by Dragomir Karić, an MP from the Snaga Srbije Movement. The head of the Group for cooperation with the Parliament of Serbia in the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus is the President of the Permanent Commission for International Affairs and National Security of the Council of the Republic of the Parliament, Vladimir Senko.

During the past 20 years, about 40 bilateral agreements have been signed that facilitate  economic cooperation and contacts between citizens, including the Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation signed in 1996, on visa-free travel of citizens, from 1999, and on free trade and mutual employment of citizens, from 2009.

I cannot but mention the introduction of direct Minsk-Belgrade flights, which have been conducted by Belarusian national airline “Belavia” since September 2013.

How strong are cultural and scientific ties between Belarus and Serbia?

Cooperation in the field of culture is realised on the basis of interstate agreements on cooperation and the five-year cooperation programme signed in 2012 by the culture ministers of Belarus and Serbia.

The cooperation programme in the field of culture and art until 2017 envisages the development of contacts between the two countries in the fields of music and theatre arts, film arts, museology and exhibition activities, the preservation of historical-cultural values, library activities and others.

Under the auspices of the separate agreements, cooperation is developed between the National Academic Bolshoi Theatre Opera and Ballet of the Republic of Belarus and the National Theatre in Belgrade, the National Library of Belarus and the National Library of Serbia, the National Art Museum of Belarus and the National Museum in Belgrade.

Serbia participates actively in cultural events that take place in Belarus, including the International Festival “Slovenian Bazaar in Vitebsk”, the Minsk International Film Festival “Listopad” and “Sozhski Dancing Festival”.

Belarusian publishing houses are regular participants  of  the International Book Fair in Belgrade, while Serbian delegations participate in the International Book Fair in Minsk.

In 2012, the book “Anthology of Belarusian poetry” was translated and published in the Serbian language. This anthology includes 68 Belarusian authors, presenting poems from the period between the 12th and 21st centuries. In Belarus, dozens of works of Serbian authors have been published, translated by Ivan Charota, professor at the Belarusian State University of Minsk and SANU academician.

When it comes to the customs union and domestic and especially foreign companies operating in Serbia, the advantages of doing business with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are usually to the fore. To what extent has this agreement acted as a lure for the arrival of partners from Serbia in Belarus?

Business circles in Belgrade and Serbia are increasingly seeing the prospects offered by the free trade regime between our two countries. After the signing of the 2009 Intergovernmental Agreement on free trade, goods turnover increased fivefold – reaching $245.5 million in 2014.

At a meeting of heads of state in June 2014, as a mark of our trade and economic relations in the nearest perspective, the figure of €500 million was determined. In terms of Belarus’s foreign trade exchange and export in 2014, Serbia climbed to 25th place from 53rd and 45th respectively.

What advantages of Belarus have Serbian companies yet to sufficiently utilise?

It is important to emphasise the balance of Belarusian-Serbian trade. We buy practically the same amount of Serbian goods as we sell products to Serbia. Accordingly, in 2014 Belarus supplied only on 155 items to Serbia, while Serbia exported 210 items as products to Belarus.

Apart from the free trade regime, another competitive advantage that should be pointed out is the optimal ratio of price and quality of Belarusian products, as well as instruments of support for Belarusian exports, such as leasing and affordable loans for large deliveries of Belarusian goods under Serbian guarantees. Logistics between our countries are relatively inexpensive – between the closest  Belarusian and Serbian district centres, Brest and Subotica, there are only 1100 km of good roads. We cooperate successfully within the framework of production chains cooperation. Serbian companies supply  their spare parts and equipment to giant Belarusian industries, such as the Minsk tractor factory, the Minsk car factory and others. Assembly production has been established in Serbia for tractors, buses and trucks, using the products of Serbian industry. And we are ready to increase localisation when offers exist on the Serbian side.

We are very interested in developing scientific and technological cooperation.

Our special economic zones function well, as do high-tech parks whose residents take advantage of an extremely favourable climate for doing business.

In terms of the formation of joint ventures, Belarus is also of particular interest to Serbia in different areas, in terms of the development of Eurasian integration and improving access for Serbian goods via Belarus to the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union. The maximum favourable conditions have been created in Belarus for the operations of Serbian businesses.

Serbian investors are currently realising huge projects in the capital of Belarus – “Minsk Lighthouse” and “MinskWorld”.

Delegations of Belarusian companies are seen increasingly in Serbia. What most interests them in Serbia?

That’s right. In recent years both sides have become importantly active – bilateral visits of delegations of our countries have become frequent, including those at the highest level. Almost every year sees the holding of sessions of the joint intergovernmental trade commission and business council. I must say that these visits always yield results – concrete contracts are signed and a favourable atmosphere for cooperation is secured. The necessary contractual-legal basis for cooperation has been created. As an example, I will mention the fact that after staging the economic forum with the participation of Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić, your country was visited by a number of representatives of Belarusian big business — potential investors. We offer technology and our market, and we are interested in highly qualified Serbian experts.

The basis of Belarusian exports is currently represented by liquefied gas, petrochemical products, wires and machine engineering products. Belarus is interested in increasing the supply of high quality petrochemical products to Serbia, tyres, agricultural technology and trucks, fertilisers, as well as the further development of industrial cooperation and assembly production.

Belarus and Serbia recently signed a road map for cooperation in economic relations. What does this mean in practical terms for the promotion of mutual economic cooperation?

In February 2015 we signed the Plan for the development of cooperation between Belarus and Serbia. This document should provide a systematic approach to the development of bilateral relations through a wide range of directions, including industry, energy, transport, investment, trade, environment, medicine, education, agriculture and more. For the first time we have such a complex document whose implementation is controlled by both parties. In the regular sessions of the joint intergovernmental trade commission in the coming years we will analyse the results of work, but we can already conclude that many decisions are being implemented.

What is the level of bilateral cooperation in the field of tourism and what are the prospects?

Unfortunately, the level of Belarusian-Serbian cooperation in the field of tourism is not high. Tourists from Belarus mainly use the transit capacity of Serbia to travel to holidays in Montenegro, staying for a few days. In accordance with their nature, climate and landscapes, as well as history and culture, both Belarus and Serbia are unique and interesting countries. Belarus is ready to offer Serbia its spas, resorts, hunting and fishing grounds, rural tourism, pilgrimage to the Belarusian Orthodox churches and monasteries, sports and historical tourism. For their part, Belarusian tourists can take advantage of Serbia’s ski resorts, unique nature parks and spas, pilgrimage to Serbian Orthodox monasteries.

It should be noted that information about the tourist potential of Serbia and Belarus are not sufficiently represented for the time being. But we're working on that. A new intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the field of tourism is in the development phase and we are also developing the possibility of establishing cooperation between the Tourist Organisation of Serbia and the National Tourism Agency of Belarus.