INTERVIEW WITH THE UNITED KINGDOM AMBASSADOR TO BELARUS
Ms. Gibb is Her Majesty’s Ambassador for the United Kingdom in Belarus (Since January 2016).
OCA: You’ve spent almost a year in Belarus now. What have you seen so far and how do you find the environment you find yourself in? Do any parts remind you of Britain?
FG: I’ve been here just over nine months. I arrived in the height of winter, at the end of January, and now we are heading into the cold weather again. But it was a wonderful summer! I’m enjoying getting to know Belarus. I have travelled on official and private visits and I think I’ve seen quite a lot in a relatively short space of time. For example, I have been on work-related trips to Mogilev, Bobriusk, and Gomel; I’ve stood beside the largest mining dump truck in the world in Zhodino. I’ve watched football in Slutsk. I’ve been to the wonderful Mir and Nezvich castles. In the summer I travelled privately to Polatsk and toured the historic sites. I’ve spent hours at Brest Fortress and its fascinating museum. I’ve paid my respects at Khatyn and skied in Silitski. I’ve swum in clear lakes in the summer, been horse-riding in the rolling countryside and much more.
As for the capital city, Minsk is an easy place to live, and so clean. It must be the cleanest city in the world, but also surprisingly green in the summer with beautiful parks and a river running through the centre. As a cyclist, I love the fact it’s so safe compared to London. Everything I’ve experienced so far, I’ve enjoyed very much. The people I’ve met are so welcoming and interesting and helpful. The only thing I miss is the sea! There are over 3,000 lakes in Belarus, but it’s not the same as being near the sea. I wouldn’t say there is anywhere I’ve been that reminds me of the UK. The sky is bigger here and the landscape flatter. It’s a lot less crowded.
OCA: You have worked in lots of places during your career, including Ukraine. What do you consider as Slavic culture and how do you think Belarusians fit into this?
FG: Slavic culture? That’s difficult. I’m not sure what it means to be Slavic in terms of character. Emotional, possibly? But that’s not an adjective that immediately springs to mind for Belarusians. I don’t think Ukrainians define themselves as Slavs. But if to be Slavic means to show great hospitality, then in my experience Belarus is most certainly Slavic! If it means a love of the datcha and the banya, then Belarus fits in! In fact the love of datchas is one thing in common with Ukraine. I’ve stayed in two datchas over the summer, and had my first experience of a Belarusian banya. It was invigorating. Another thing I noticed in Belarus that may or may not be Slavic but which I also experienced in Ukraine, is a love of vodka and toasts. People love to toast each other here with great enthusiasm multiple times during a meal.
OCA: You said in one of your interviews that in Belarus you are planning to support economic development and democracy. How is the process going, and what are the challenges you see that need to be overcome?
FG: The EU sanctions were lifted in February and this has paved the way for more outreach to Belarus. Promotion of democratic values and adherence to international standards of human rights is a key area for the UK, and we will continue to engage with Belarus in these matters. But we are also working to increase our understanding of the economic challenges the country faces, and to identify where we can help. Clearly I’d like more two-way trade and investment, and that’s something my team and I will encourage, although it’s not something we can guarantee as the decision is not ours to make, but rather the business community’s. Belarus has taken steps to highlight the opportunities that exist for investment and trade, but I think more could be done. There’s lots of competition elsewhere and Belarus needs to promote itself more visibly.
OCA: From the British perspective, what projects do you have in the pipeline to improve Anglo-Belarusian relations?
FG: Projects for next year are still at the planning stage, but right now we’re working with the government to safeguard children from sexual exploitation online, and we’re also working with the government to put in place really good legislation dealing with domestic violence. We’re doing some work with independent media, and pursuing some follow-up work to the first conference on the use of the death penalty, which we funded in March of this year and which was hosted by the MFA and UNDP. We’d like to encourage more debate around this divisive issue with a view to supporting the government putting in place a moratorium. We’re planning new projects in the economic sphere to help build more resilience in the system and support people. I’m also hopeful that our Guest of Honour status at the Minsk International Book Fair in February 2017 will help improve Anglo-Belarusian relations through greater interest in acquiring English language skills. By being able afforded access to our great literature, more Belarusians may come to see the UK as destination of choice for education overseas.
OCA: What sort of investment climate do you see currently in the Republic of Belarus? How would you recommend British and other foreign businesses invest in the Belarusian economy?
FG: I believe Belarus has just moved to 37th place in the World Bank’s Doing Business index, out of 190 countries. It has moved up 13 places in a year, which is good. However, the main problem is accessing credit. The overall rating is the sum of various sub-ratings, and for the “Getting Credit” rating, Belarus stands at 101, only eight places better than last year. I know negotiations are underway on a possible loan from the IMF and Belarus has stated that it wishes to join the WTO. I think movement on both of these issues would give the greater international financial community more confidence in Belarus and help improve its ability to get credit. I would certainly recommend British businesses take a look at the opportunities here. There are already some British companies investing here, but we would like to see more.
OCA: Many of the former Soviet Republics have found their way in the modern world. Do you think Belarus has found its own place on the political map of Europe yet?
FG: If you mean is Belarus finding its way in the modern world, then yes, I think it is getting there. In terms of the technology sector, I would say Belarus is even ahead in this modern world, with its great pool of young engineers and software designers. There is certainly a growing interest in Belarus, and a growing appreciation of its distinct identity. The geographical heart of Europe is in Belarus; I have stood at the very spot in Polatsk. Belarus looks east and west and can be a bridge between the two. Certainly it offers a gateway to the markets of the Eurasian Economic Union. Engagement on a variety of levels between the EU and Belarus is growing.
OCA: Belarus is well-known for its situation with human rights. How do you see both the current and future situation evolving?
FG: As I mentioned earlier, human rights is a very important area which we and other EU members will continue to engage with Belarus on. We see it as a positive development that Belarus has recently finalised and presented its National Action Plan on human rights, and is actively engaging with the international community to take work forward. For the EU, one of the most important issues is that of the death penalty. We continue to encourage Belarus to put in place a moratorium on the death penalty as a first step towards its abolition. It’s true that there are countries elsewhere in the world with which we do business even though the death penalty is still in use; the difference is that Belarus is a European country. As I have said, it occupies the heart of Europe, and that is why we expect more from Belarus as a fellow European country.
OCA: What impact do you think Brexit will have on British foreign policy? Might we see the UK focus more on Asia in its economic relations?
FG: Britain is a bold, outward looking nation, which thrives and prospers on the world stage. We are a country with the self-confidence and the freedom to look to the economic and diplomatic opportunities of the wider world. We are the fifth largest economy in the world and the second fastest growing major economy in the world last year. We are ranked in the top six countries in the world as a place to do business. We have record employment. So we can be confident about the fundamental strengths of the UK economy and optimistic about the role we will forge for the UK, building on our strength as a great trading nation. We will make a success of Brexit. Whilst our future relationship with the EU is still to be determined, we are not leaving Europe. Britain will remain a close friend, ally and trading partner to our European neighbours. We will want the strongest possible economic links with our European neighbours, as well as our close friends in North America, the Commonwealth and other important partners around the world, be they in Asia or elsewhere.
OCA: At one of her interviews, Her Excellency the (former) Ambassador of France in Belarus, Dominique Gazuy said “My heart will always stay in Belarus”. What’s your personal impression about the country and what would you like to tell the world about it?
FG: Twenty years ago, I was working at our embassy in Kyiv. It was ten years after Chernobyl. All I knew about Belarus was that it was this mysterious, closed, rather Soviet-sounding country to the north, badly affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Here I am, twenty years later. I would never have expected it. I think this is a country which has experienced and overcome great tragedies in its history, and not only its twentieth century history. I think it is a great tribute to the resilience and fortitude of the Belarusian people that this country has been rebuilt from the rubble of WWII and faced with courage the aftermath of Chernobyl. The challenges are not over, of course, but I hope to play my part as the representative of the UK in Belarus to support this country as it faces the challenges ahead. What do I want to tell the world? Belarus – Be There!