One of the key appointments, which was mentioned in the video digest, was a new Belarusian Ambassador to Belgium with concurrent accreditation in Luxembourg, and at the same time permanent representative to the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, as well as Permanent Representative to NATO. Alexander Mikhnevich is here with us in the studio. Judging by the number of duties or list of official titles, there is much to talk about.
Mr Mikhnevich, hello.
Alexander Mikhnevich, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to the Kingdom of Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Permanent Representative of Belarus to the European Union and NATO:
Let’s start with football. Still, we are all watching Euro 2016 like all other men. And women, too, I guess. I suspect that you cheer for Belgium… Or for England by force of habit, since you were an ambassador there…
You asked a question and answered it, because the question is provocative. If I say that I don’t support Belgium then all my colleagues will be offended. In fact, since I was an ambassador to Great Britain and Ireland I support England, Wales, and Ireland. Overseeing our relations with Russia, I, of course, support Russia too. And now I would like Belgium to win. In general, I am a fan of beautiful football.
Football is important for England and Russia, and Belgium. I recollect that a few years ago in Belgium, there was a situation when the Flemish and Walloons vied with each other; there were even some speculations about the division of Belgium. But then someone said that Belgians are united by football, beer, and the king. What unites Belarus and Belgium, apart from beer?
Of course, Belgium is a highly developed European country. Belarus supplies there goods worth nearly $170 million; we import from there some more. We are complementary economies. I want to say thank you to my predecessor. Andrey Yevdochenko did a lot for the development of relations.
But the trading figures of $167 million of Belarus’ export and $200 million of Belgian export is a drop in the ocean. And of course we must increase our turnover. Including when it comes to such mono-items as diamonds. It is good when they are faceted. But if not, then our exports give nothing. We do not actually get the added value. The second position is our potassium chloride. It is necessary to expand its range.
We know, for example, that the Belgian waffle is their trademark. Belarus also has them and the President, by the way, visited the factory Spartak yesterday where wafers are produced. It is unlikely that we will get Belgians interested in waffles. You worked a long time at Bellegprom and you know that Belarusian shirts are good too. But again, we are unlikely to be competitive in the Belgian market because China has occupied that niche there. What Belarusian products could be interesting to Belgium?
You know, I am sure we could get them interested with our T-shits. A T-shirt is a collective image of the light industry.
I remembered Bellegprom and evoked nostalgia, didn’t I?
Yes. There’s a very serious group on the production of carpets — Beaulieu. This is a family business in the fifth generation. So here we very actively cooperate with them when it comes to the mutual supply of carpets. Oddly, Belgium — number 1 manufacturer of carpets in the world — still imports our carpets. So the same may happen with T-shirts. It is hard to surprise Belgians but surely we can amaze them with something eco-friendly. Our products, including our agricultural equipment, may well be in demand in the market because of a good price-quality ratio, However, we need good and well-thought-out servicing.
The second aspect. Brussels is the headquarters of almost all the European institutions. It is home to not only the European Commission, not only the headquarters of the NATO, but also home to border and customs services, several dozen European agencies fighting smuggling, and so on. And it is very important to keep abreast of all those events. That is we need to be integrated into European politics, European relations.
But these political structures sometimes can harm the relations. A temporary cooling of relations may happen… When it comes to the political problems, we more often have them with the EU. How to solve them?
You know, since the lifting of sanctions in February we have seen positive dynamism of relations with the European Union. And meetings intensified and the level of these meetings increased. The pragmatics of these meetings has risen. Purely technical barriers were removed. But there are still lots of unresolved issues. Firstly, there are still some textile quotas. These are anachronisms and they should be abolished as soon as possible, because our textile market is no threat to the European Union.
We are not China.
We are not China, we simply supplement the market with our product range. Secondly, it is very important for us today to get access to European financial institutions. And we can do this including through Brussels. We could effectively modernize our economy through technologies and equipment produced in Europe. It is now almost first-class equipment. To buy it we need loans. It is best that these resources come from Europe. This will give us the opportunity to produce products that will be in demand in Europe, and we will thus be able to return the invested money in our economy.
Can I just make a little remark? The President, when he appointed you and other ambassadors, focused on South Korea and Japan. He said that these countries are very important because they possess high technologies we’re interested in. And when it comes to Belgium, from the point of view of the development of high technology, we are interested in finance.
In Belgium and Luxembourg (because I am concurrently an ambassador in Luxembourg) we are interested in financial institutions. Now we are promoting Belarusian Eurobonds in the European Union. The key financial organizations, such as Clearstream and Euroclear are located here. Without these organizations, we are unable to use this financial instrument.
There is another feature in Belgium. It’s been a while since I’ve been there; I think it was 10 years ago. Driving from Germany to Belgium I noticed that in the evening, all roads were illuminated. They have two nuclear power plants, they join the nuclear energy. And now Belarus is also building its own NPP. By the way, you are a representative at the European community on nuclear energy. How will they help us? Will they share some experience, help protect against opponents or competitors who would not like to see an NPP in Belarus?
Firstly, this is experience, because today we are building a nuclear power plant in full accordance with international standards, norms and so on. It is the International Atomic Energy Agency that is a kind of arbiter. And so we are cooperating with them very closely. And, you are absolutely correct to use the words «protection against opponents.» In particular, we are looking forward to it. But not only. Today in the world there are several manufacturers of nuclear reactors (the Russian Federation, France and some others), and we need to always make the right choice when developing nuclear energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency is also of help here. Therefore it is very important layer of work.
You also represent Belarus in NATO. Just recently, Belarus has tested the missile system Polonez. This is also a great achievement for Belarus’ military industry, a contribution to the country’s defense. Say, is this a response to the advancement of NATO to the borders of Belarus? I am saying this because you may be asked out there: «You are developing some new weapons so we need to have another battalion in Lithuania or Poland.»
Firstly, I will say that we should not perceive NATO only as a military organization. NATO is a much broader organization, there are many areas of its work. And I would single out two. The first direction is, indeed, the military presence, troops, zones of influence, and so on. Here we have an absolutely unilateral position: the build-up of military capabilities in the East or in the West does not stabilize the situation. Therefore, we do not want to attract to our territory any foreign military installations or armed forces. We want to develop our own armed forces to the extent to which it will contribute to the protection of our sovereignty. We do not claim to play some geopolitical games here. Therefore, the launch of the missile strictly corresponds to our military doctrine.
So this is not the Russian missile, this is the Belarusian one…
Yes, the Belarusian one. Of course, it has many components, we understand that. This is one aspect, but NATO has another one. For example, when we were preparing for the 2014 IIHF World Championship, which was successfully held in Minsk, we carried out together with the NATO some exercises and seminars on the fight against terrorist acts. Together with them, we fight against smuggling, trafficking, human trafficking and so on. Finally, we have accumulated certain potential of arms destruction, which is also important. I mean the same mines, for example. This requires quite a lot of money. A lot of money in order to neutralize all these products. And here we also look forward to NATO assistance.
But the USA is the main player in NATO. Note that the European Union lifted sanctions against Belarus, but the United States did not. On June 10, Obama reiterated that sanctions against Belarus on the part of the USA will remain. Why? Explain why? How to explain the behavior of the United States?
The reason for US sanctions are a bit different. They were introduced 10 years ago or more. For example, we believe one cannot write (as the document reads) that «Belarus threatens US national security.» But the internal political situation in the USA prevents the rapid abolition of such things. I can give you a very simple example. Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was linked to the unresolved Jewish question in the USSR. They all left long ago and even come back for holidays. But the Jackson-Vanik amendment is still valid. The same goes for the limitation on arms supply. The USSR has not existed for a while. Here is the inertia of their decisions. But it is important that we have identified the cooperation principles with the United States. Belarus says that if there are some points on which we can’t agree, okay, let’s wait a while. But if there is common ground on other matters, let’s cooperate and increase the level of trust. And I must say that now we are engaged in quite an effective dialogue.
We see US delegations more often now. And, there may be two other reasons. First, the United States wants to show that it is better than the European Union. Second, the USA leaves itself a breathing space, relatively speaking, in order to later force Belarus to make some further steps. You say we have increased the activities. What do Americans expect from us?
You know, there is no reason for Americans to continue these sanctions. I have recently met with a group of American businessmen who came here. We had absolutely logical conversations. They do understand that the sanctions we are talking about are counterproductive. Moreover, they no longer work. But the fact is that the moral effect from these sanctions is worse than the sanctions themselves. Businessmen think twice before coming to a country under sanctions. But I think that these barriers can gradually be overcome.
Let’s return to the EU. What dynamism in the trade relations can Belarus and the EU have? Earlier half the turnover was with Russia. Now, only a third. And a third with the European Union. It is difficult to say who is more important. Russia is vital but the European Union is not less important. Can we pin special hopes on the European Union?
If it were as you say (one third, one third, one third), it would be an ideal situation our foreign economic doctrine is aiming at. One-third of export to Europe, one-third to Russia and one-third to distant countries.
Maybe I’m wrong, please correct. How much is with Russia?
We trade with Russia more than with the European Union. Russia accounts for about 50% of Belarus’ export. This is such an objective imbalance in this situation. These are the consequences of the sanctions. Today, we are planning, for example, to intensify the process of accession to the WTO. And here, too, Brussels plays a very important role. And if we become members of the World Trade Organization, such anti-dumping and other restrictive measures against us (they are at the level of intuition) will no longer be applied.
It is important to raise our rating in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). This means credit resources for us as a whole will be cheaper. If you move away from economy and look at the sphere of legal relationships, this will be nonsense: we do not have a framework agreement on partnership and cooperation with the European Union. We have an agreement that has been in force since the Soviet times; we kind of “inherited” it. This must be corrected immediately.
Maybe now, in the face of problems in the European Union (Brexit and so on) maybe the European Union will be more attentive with new countries, non-members of the EU? For example, with Belarus. Will this influence Belarus-EU relations?
Certainly. We know purely from psychology: when people are in a difficult situation, they are seeking additional allies who would support them.
And I think that Belarus’ non-engagement, equal-vector policy has become our advantage in recent years. Therefore, the West sees that no threat can come from Belarus. And, of course, I think that this framework contributes to the development of our dialogue with the European Union.
EU cancelled sanctions against Belarus but it is not that good with Russia. Some even say that Moscow is a bit jealous now. Although we recorded an interview with Chairwoman of the Russian Parliament’s Upper House Valentina Matviyenko, and she said: ‘No, you have your own interests, we have our own. It is normal that you are developing relations with Europe.’
But doesn’t Belarus have any new chances against this background? Maybe if Russia stopped importing cheeses or other products, maybe we could develop new production facilities? Remember the Forum of Regions where President Lukashenko spoke about apples and bananas. What are our chances in connection with this?
I first of all, I want to say that the sanctions against Russia certainly have a negative impact on Belarus’ economy. Firstly, it’s because of transit. Since the transit of a large number of sanctioned goods to Russia through Belarus was simply forbidden, we suffered from that. Second. Although Russia has a very strong economy, yet sanctions were a factor in the devaluation of the Russian ruble. And this means direct export losses, which is very important for us. And so when they say that Belarus benefits from this confrontation, this is absolutely not true. No one has compensated for the losses Belarus suffered following these mutual claims between the Russian Federation and the European Union.
Our turnover is down by 12%.
Absolutely right. And the fall continues. However, it is encouraging that this negative trend with the Russian Federation is slowing. That is, the fall was earlier 18% while now it is only 6%. Belarus has supplied to the Russian Federation nearly $3 billion in the four months of 2016.
But you are absolutely right that we just have to fill this niche. And our Russian colleagues say: «Guys, we’re ready to buy everything from you. Let’s just not play these games with each other. Produce!» Moreover, recently, there has been a very interesting conversation, during the forum and its preparations, that Belarus’ climate allows growing apples. And Russia is absolutely okay with that. They promise to buy them all.
All right. At the beginning of the interview, you recalled your predecessor, with whom you exchanged posts. I looked on a website and saw him in a luxurious coat, standing before the king during the presentation of credentials. Have you prepared your suit for that solemn moment?
I have packed it already. Yes, I had to do it back in the UK, where the dress code has always been very serious. It is permitted to wear either a tuxedo or your national costume. When we presented our credentials to the Queen, she was amazed by the embroidery my wife wore. Her Majesty began to study the embroidery and asked what various elements meant. That is, it was a very interesting dialogue. I think that during the presentation of credentials, we will wear both the national costume and traditional European attributes.
Will you take something to Belgium, something resembling Belarus?
I have a talisman that is always with me. It’s a very simple Belarusian doll. But she is like our guardian angel. And so she will be always with me.
Thank you, Mr Mikhnevich. Here in the studio was Alexander Mikhnevich, the new ambassador of Belarus to Belgium with concurrent accreditation in Luxembourg, permanent representative in the EU, Permanent Representative to NATO and the European Atomic Energy Community. Is the list of titles complete, Mr Mikhnevich?
You will have a lot of work to do! Thank you very much.