Interview by the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Belarus to Lithuania, Alexander Korol, to the newspaper «The Baltic Times» (February-March 2017)
In the scale from 1- very bad- to 10-excellent- where do you see the relations between Lithuania and Belarus?
Relations between two states cannot be assessed on any scale. We share not only a common border. Belarus and Lithuania develop relations in various fields. We cooperate in political, economic and humanitarian spheres. We also actively cooperate in sport and tourism sector. There are strong human bonds between the peoples of the two countries. This is in large part due to historical factors. Neighbors should base their relations on friendship and mutual respect.
What trends in mutual trade over the last couple of years can you discern? What do you attribute them to?
Lithuania has traditionally been one of the most important European partners of Belarus in the economic sphere.
Due to petroleum products, fertilizers and metals price fluctuations, as well as to changes of world market conditions in general the bilateral trade in recent years has decreased, but it is still more than 1 billion US dollars (in 2016 — 1.05 billion dollars).
There has been some slowdown in the field of trade in services. This resulted primarily from the decline of transport services, which constitute 75-80% of the total services.
A consistently high level of investment cooperation remains. Since 2012, the annual volume of Lithuanian investments in Belarus exceeds $150 million. And for the 2016 it reached $253 million.
Mutual benefit from Belarus and Lithuania cooperation is obvious especially within the context of countries’ participation in different integration structures (EU and EAEU) and possibilities for them to enter vast markets of these regional entities.
Where do you see room for expansion of Lithuanian and Belarusian trade and cultural exchanges?
As I have already mentioned, in terms of economic partnership our countries' attractiveness for each other has increased markedly owing to their participation in integration processes: Lithuania's within the European Union and Belarus' within the Eurasian Economic Union. This factor, as well as the strategic position of Belarus and Lithuania at the intersection of two integration unions has made possible to considerate our countries as a reliable bridgehead for further development of larger markets. There is a great potential here.
Furthermore, the development of industrial cooperation, creation of export-oriented joint ventures, effective financial and credit support of commercial transactions and investment projects will contribute to further growth of bilateral trade and economic cooperation.
With regard to the cultural exchanges it should be noted that we have a very active dialogue in this sphere. The Days of Belarusian Culture take place regularly in Lithuania as well as The Days of Lithuanian Culture in Belarus. Close contacts have been formed between museums, theatres and libraries of the two countries. However, even in this sphere there is the potential to increase such kind of interaction. In our view, we could hold joint events devoted to common historical events and outstanding cultural figures, who left their mark on the history of both states as well as we could present new names and new artistic trends in culture.
Do you believe in a possibility for a political dialogue between two neighbours?
There is an on-going dialogue between our countries. Its intensity may be different, but the quality remains the same — to develop relations on the principles of good neighborliness, mutual respect, equality. There are various formats for that: from consultations between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs to high-level meetings, including those in multilateral formats.
By the way, thanks to the positive and strong political position of our colleagues, including Lithuanian ones, it was decided by the Council of the EU to lift sanctions against Belarus. And we are grateful to the Lithuanian side for this position.
Many high-ranking Lithuanian politicians I've spoken tend to describe the Belarusian leadership and the President, Alexander Lukashenka, as “authoritarian”,off record mostly, because of fears to undermine the economic ties between the states, but keep a neutral approach officially. Are you aware of the hypocrisy? What would be your response to it?
Close economic ties have been developed between our countries. Hardly any political force could radically affect business-contacts, which are beneficial for the both parties: it's like cutting off the branch we are sitting on.
Hypocrisy...It is an inevitable trait of human nature. But politicians, they are representatives of authority and more than anyone else should exercise greater responsibility in protecting the interests of their state and its people.
My relatives who visit their family members in Brest praise the town for the modern infrastructure and tidiness. Would it be right to say that many Belarusian do not care about the politics as long as they are able to afford a relatively decent living and pretty cheap goods?
I would not simplify the understanding of Belarusians. Decent life is a multidimensional concept. The duty of a state is to take care not just of the welfare, but of its citizens’ security.
I don’t think anyone would argue that Belarusians feel confident about their future. As for political activity, in Belarus as in any other country, there are citizens who, by their nature, social status etc., are more involved in the political life of the country, but there are also people for whom it is not that important. In general, the policies pursued nowadays in Belarus certainly enjoy the support of the majority of the population. This is confirmed by the results of recent election campaigns.
What is your take on European humanities University in Vilnius, which effectively caters to Belarusian citizens?
We categorize the European Humanitarian University as higher educational institution attended among others by Belarusian citizens. We are of view that its core mission is the provision of quality higher education. The choice of the place for obtaining professional qualification is the prerogative of the young people themselves.
How do you explain that roughly a 40 percent Belarusian citizens living in Lithuania voted for Lukashenka in the last presidential election?
We don't have such statistics. According to the precinct election commission formed by the Embassy, more than 70 per cent of Belarusian citizens, who were present in the territory of Lithuania and had the right to vote, voted for the current President.
What is your response to Lithuania's multiple attempts to derail or halt ther nuclear power project in Astravyets? Do you believe the project will be completed in time?
As the country, most severely affected by the Chernobyl disaster, Belarus attaches utmost importance to nuclear safety issues and to transparent implementation of the Belarusian NPP Project.
We are working closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency, European Commission, World Association of Nuclear Operators as well as with other partners and make maximum use of their experience and instruments. The Nuclear power plant construction site was visited by more than 70 delegations, including plenty from abroad — Hungary, Poland, France, Bangladesh, Egypt, the European Commission, the IAEA and others.
Nuclear and radiation safety is an important and long-term dimension of bilateral relations between Belarus and Lithuania. Against this background, it's disappointing and surprising that Lithuania discredits actively the Belarusian nuclear energy project at various international platforms. We are very interested in establishing proper working relations on this matter and we really want the rhetoric of Lithuanian politicians to pass in a constructive way.
Concerning the completion of the project, it should be noted, that there is no indication or reason for the Belarusian side to delay the completion date of the project – construction work is being carried out under approved interim schedule.
Belarus holds a stake in Klaipeda Brittle Cargo Terminal. Under what circumstances would Belarus consider selling the stake and reroute its cargo elsewhere? Can it happen?
Belarus doesn't have a limited choice of options for freight forwarding by sea transport. We work with seaports of Ventspils, Klaipeda, Odessa, Russian seaports. When selecting seaport first and foremost we are guided by economic factors – benefits for the exporters involved, working conditions.
Current cooperation between Belarusian companies and Klaipeda State Seaport is characterized by stability, sustainability and high reliability. Following the results of the year 2016, Klaipeda Seaport transshipped about 14 million tons of Belarusian cargoes, which is 34 per cent of the total cargo transshipped volume. We are pleased that we were able to take an active part in setting a new record – last year Klaipeda Seaport transshipped 40,14 million tons of cargoes – this is the best annual result ever recorded at the Seaport.
Cooperation does not stand still. Number of Belarusian enterprises has made a decision to become a part of the stevedoring companies. These investments enabled to increase the level of interaction, improve infrastructure, and, most importantly, create conditions for further growth of transshipped volumes.
In such circumstances, there is probably no reason to discuss the intension to sell shares and withdraw from the port. To breakdown the system developed for years is much easier than to achieve that level of relations, which currently exist between Belarusian enterprises and Klaipeda Seaport.
Nevertheless today there are many examples when politics interferes in economics, when developing for decades working schemes are destroyed, despite the long-term stable and reliable relations. As for the present Belarusian enterprises are generally satisfied with the working conditions provided by Klaipeda seaport and with the level of interaction achieved. Although taking into account the availability of alternatives, everything is possible. Life has an odd way of making things work out in the end.
What is behind Belarus' decision to waive visa regime for US and EU citizens?
First of all this decision has arisen from pragmatism – our willingness to attract a greater number of tourist and business representatives into Belarus, to grant the opportunity to see Belarus with own eyes, instead of reading about the country in newspapers or watching it on broadcasts. We have much to show and much to be proud of. A brief experience in implementing a similar solution for visiting Grodno Region (Recreation Park Augustow Canal) has demonstrated potential of such work. For instance, in a period of more than two month while the proper decree was in force, the number of Lithuanians visiting Grodno Region without visa has increased significantly. We hope that the introduction of visa-free entry through the border checkpoint at the Minsk National Airport will have a positive impact on tourist and business attractiveness of our country.
It seems that Russia is not happy about the visa cancelation decision?…
There won't be any damage to Russia. Several concerns related to irregular migration have been voiced. But there are a number of mechanisms to prevent the violation of new rules for visiting Belarus and to prevent additional problems in migration field for the neighboring country.
What do you find most amazing about Vilnius and Lithuania?
For a certain period of time we formed part of one State and experienced common historical events. For instance, monuments of architecture and culture of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania are our common historical and cultural heritage.
It is really nice, that remarkable trace at Lithuania was left by Belarusians. In Vilnius you can find many memorable places, connected to life and work of prominent Belarusian public figures and cultural representatives, who are of interest not only to us but also to the guests of the Lithuanian capital.
Are you content with the situation of ethnic minorities, and that of Belarusians, in Lithuania?
The Government of Lithuania pays great attention to the issues of national minorities lately. I would like to note with satisfaction that Belarusians of Lithuania feel the support from the Department of National Minorities and local authorities on the issue of their national identity preservation. There is Francysk Skaryna gymnasium with Belarusian language of instruction in Vilnius. And we are pleased to note that its popularity is growing. Many educational and cultural activities are being carried out, including those aimed at maintaining ties with historical homeland.
If you were to address the Lithuanian top-echelon leaders, what would you underline in the speech?
Belarusians and Lithuanians have a centuries-long experience of living side by side; we also share common history. And we must never forget that. Naturally, that disputes are inevitable between close neighbors, but they should be resolved only through dialogue. Belarus is open and ready to dialogue with Lithuania.
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