2017 is a very important year for Belarus and Great Britain, as this year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Great Britain became the first European country to have diplomatic relations with Belarus. This is certainly an important part of the history of friendship between the two states. In an interview with OCA, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Belarus to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Sergei Aleinik, spoke about the friendship of the two states, the results achieved over 25 years and the investment attractiveness of Belarus for British investors.

OCA: This year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the UK and the Republic of Belarus. Tell us what was done during this time?

Sergei Aleinik: This year is historical for the Belarusian-British relations – we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. It is only natural to recall some of the significant developments of the past quarter of a century and sum up the achievements.
The United Kingdom was among the first nations with which the Republic of Belarus established diplomatic relations (January 27, 1992). The recognition of our independence by a leading European power was important for us per se. And, naturally, the opening of a British diplomatic mission in Minsk as well as ours in London extremely facilitated the enhancement of the bilateral cooperation.

Here we cannot fail to mention a fact of great political significance, namely the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of December 5, 1994 associated, among others, with Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. In accordance with the provisions of the Memorandum the UK (together with the Russian Federation and the USA) is one of the States – guarantors of the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Belarus.

In the second half of the 1990s, the UK provided Belarus with a significant expert and methodological assistance to create the national export control system. In addition, the UK actively contributed to the inclusion of Belarus into the Nuclear Suppliers Group – one of the export control regimes, composed of States possessing nuclear technology.

In 1996, the UK was one of the first nations in the European Union to have ratified the Agreement on Partnership and Cooperation between Belarus and the EU. Unfortunately, the latter crashed on differences in the assessment of the internal development of Belarus. To a degree, the initial objectives have been realised in the framework of the EU Eastern Partnership.

In November 2008, London hosted the First Belarusian investment forum which was attended by Belarusian Prime Minister, Sergei Sidorski.

This bilateral political dialogue was enhanced in 2016 by Sir Simon Gass, Director General for Political Affairs at the FCO. That same year Belarus witnessed a visit by Prince Michael of Kent to promote contacts between the two countries in various fields.

There has also been a real prospect of enhancing inter-parliamentary cooperation. In January 2017 the parliaments of the two countries completed the formation of their respective country groups that are expected to deliver the necessary dynamics in this regard.
Over 25 years, the UK has become one of Belarus’ leading economic partners. By the end of 2015, the UK took third place among our trading partners, trailing only Russia and Ukraine. The volume of Belarusian exports to the UK rose to $3 billion. Importantly, Britain is among the main importers of Belarusian oil products. It is also a major international investor in Belarus.

Indispensable to our cooperation is the work in London of the outposts of the Belarusian state oil company, Belavia airlines and the Development Bank of the Republic of Belarus. The 5-day visa free regime, introduced this year for Britons, among another 80 nations, is also of great significance.
The bilateral cooperation is being channelled, among others, through the twinning of Belarusian and UK cities: Minsk and Nottingham, Gomel and Aberdeen, Svetlogorsk and Mendip District. An important element is solidarity with the Belarusian people that suffered the most from the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

To highlight the 25th Anniversary of Belarusian-British diplomatic relations, the Embassy helped organise a series of events in London and Minsk. February 27th saw a conference at the British library to celebrate 500 years of book-printing in Belarus and Eastern Europe and the anniversary of Francis Skaryna’s translation, into Belarusian, of the Bible.

That same day, the Directors of the British Library and the National Library of Belarus, Roly Keating and Roman Motulski, held negotiations and signed a memorandum on the two institutions’ cooperation. In parallel, Britain participated in the Minsk International Book Fair as a special guest.

Significantly, the British Library keeps three precious works of the first Belarusian printer which were kindly digitised and presented to the Belarusian side. In turn, the British Library was presented with a multi-volume reprint edition of Skaryna’s works.

We can find an important link between England and our land. I mean, John Lettou, or John of Lithuania (Belarusian: Ян Літвін, Lithuanian: Jonas Lietuvis), who was an English bookbinder and printer. Seventeen books printed between 1475 and 1480 are attributed to his workshop in London. Later John Lettou worked in partnership with William de Machlinia and they published mostly law books. Actually, they were the first publishers of law books in English.

This year we have also managed to solve all questions related to reprinting the single full copy of the “BUKVAR” (a primer), a unique and historically valuable book for Belarus. It dates back as far as the year 1618 and is kept at the Library of Middle Temple.

Symbolic were also the visits of delegations of the Imperial War Museum to Minsk and the Nesvizh Museum to the UK which have opened wide prospects for bilateral cooperation in studying military history and making specialised galleries.

Being historically a major battlefield in European wars and having suffered huge losses of life, Belarus conducts a multi-vector and independent policy in international relations, primarily aimed at strengthening peace and stability in the European region. The Belarusian side has provided a venue for the peace talks in the “Normandy format” on the conflict in the east of Ukraine, as well as for the work of the Trilateral contact group and its working subgroups.

The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has actively spoken out in favour of normalisation of relations between East and West in order to avoid another cold war. This objective is pursued in his initiative: “Helsinki-2” has proposed Minsk as a venue for a round of expert consultations in this regard.

Belarus demonstrates a desire to more actively participate in the activities of European regional organisations. This year we chair the Central European Initiative, co-chair the Committee of regions of the CoE, and in July Minsk conducted the Annual session of the OSCE
Presenting itself as a sponsor of security in the region, Belarus provides a consistently high level of border management, including combating illegal migration, smuggling, terrorism and crime. This aims to curb attempts to destabilise the situation and spread extremism on the European continent. Work is conducted in all areas to strengthen stability, security and confidence in the region.

OCA: What are your plans for the future? In what direction does the Republic of Belarus intend to develop relations with the Kingdom of Great Britain?

SA: 25th-26th September 2017 saw a visit to Belarus of the Secretary of State for Europe and the Americas at the FCO, Sir Alan Duncan, who met with President Alexander Lukashenko and Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei and discussed furthering bilateral cooperation in all spheres. An important agreement on evasion of double taxation was also signed.

Economic cooperation figures prominently in our future plans, and that goes primarily for the high-tech sector, traditionally very strong in Belarus and investment in the green economy. The two sides are planning to soon conclude agreements on international transport and customs cooperation.

We look forward to fresh initiatives in the sphere of university exchanges, where important pioneers of multi-layer projects are the University of Kent, the University of Cambridge and the Belarusian State University.

We appreciate and facilitate people to people contacts which lead to interesting bilateral projects in education, culture and business.
A more favourable external context, we are now facing, has contributed to the strengthening of democratic processes in Belarus and liberalisation of all spheres of life and society consolidation.

In the systematic work on improvement of the legislation of the Republic of Belarus in the social and economic spheres the experience and best practices of foreign countries, including the UK, will continue to be taken into consideration. As a result, almost all the territory of Belarus is successfully operating preferential economic regimes of different character and coverage.

OCA: How do you assess the trade and economic relations between the two states?

SA: Belarus-UK economic cooperation has been developing gradually for years.

Over the last 4 consecutive years the United Kingdom has been third largest importer of Belarusian commodities, being also ranked second among top investors in Belarus. After 9 months this year, the volume of bilateral trade in goods and services exceeded 2 billion US dollars.

We are interested in a further facilitation of economic contacts with the UK, including new emerging areas such as industrial cooperation and innovations. Such spheres as biotechnologies and pharmaceutical industry, IT, motor industry, petrochemicals, wood processing industry as well as agriculture and food processing would be of particular interest for us.

Our country is ready to become a gateway to the Eurasian Economic Union’s common market for new joint ventures, which might be created by companies from Belarus and the United Kingdom.

Belarus would be ready to supply a wide range of industrial products, machinery and equipment, guaranteeing their high performance at a very reasonable price. We have discussed this range of questions with our British partners. A promising area is Belarusian companies’ involvement in re-equipping urban fleets in the UK with Belarusian electric buses and trams.
We propose to establish new businesses in the Industrial Park “Great Stone”. It is a special economic zone, which we are developing, arising from the unique model of Singapore’s free economic zones. The “Great Stone” was named by Chinese President Xí Jìnpíng the «Pearl of the Silk Road Economic Belt».

OCA: What investment projects are currently being implemented? How do you think that Belarus will be of interest to large investors from the UK?

SA: Our Embassy has been in quite a substantial dialogue with the UK Government on foreign trade and investment cooperation to identify the ways we could jointly facilitate bilateral ties between businesses. For instance, a delegation of UK Export Finance visited Belarus in November 2017 to discuss how this governmental department could ensure access to finance for British and Belarusian companies when exporting to Belarus from the UK. We look forward to seeing both UK exporters and their partners in Belarus among UKEF’s services users soon.

We are seriously keen to further develop relations with the City of London, which rightfully tops ratings of global financial centres. As you know, our country has successfully reestablished its presence at debt capital markets in June 2017. Did you know that an average of 1/3 of our sovereign Eurobonds are held by investors from the UK, the rest being mainly based in the U.S.? We expect more deals to come, especially from the corporate sector. It definitely means that doing business with Belarus is “not that scary” for those who understand where the real opportunities are.

Alongside pure financial sourcing, my country is interested in attracting equity investments to develop joint UK-Belarus projects in various fields. There have been many over years, but now we are poised to significantly increase volumes of FDI coming from the United Kingdom. In particular, there is a well-shaped commitment on the Government’s side to promote investment inflow to emerging sectors such as green energy. As a prominent example, I would mention a joint Belarus-UK/Irish project in solar energy which is now under way in Belarus with the support of the Government and a potential for receiving EBRD financing in the nearest future. United Green, being a London- based investment group, and their Irish partners from Altostrata Energy Ltd. are now building what will be the third largest solar power plant in Europe when put into operation in the south-eastern part of Belarus.
And this is only a part of a jigsaw puzzle! Now, as Belarus is heading to extensive use of green energy, the authorities are quite keen to bring UK’s expertise as one of the most advanced nations in terms of promoting electric vehicles (EV) and developing EV public infrastructure. We cordially invite investors to allocate their EV production facilities in Belarus given that Belarus can now offer an almost unique mixture of investment incentives. And let’s not forget about my country’s geographical position being right at the crossroads between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union which, again, opens up immense business opportunities. The same relates to those companies that manufacture and operate EV charging equipment. They are most welcome in Belarus which is now a green field in this sense.

A confirmation of positive tendencies in the development of Belarus is the World Bank’s rating “Doing Business 2017”, in which our country has risen to 37th place, surpassing 13 points during the past year. In terms of international trade, we occupy 30th place for the second consecutive year. That must stimulate our British partners to even broader cooperate with Belarus and to build commercial bridges to the East, given Belarus’ favourable transit position on the edge of the Eurasian space.

OCA: You have been the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Belarus in the United Kingdom for 4 years already. During the years you’ve been here, you have probably learned a lot about the country. What can you say about this?

SA: Britain is a country of great heritage in many fields, having accumulated huge volumes of expertise and knowledge, cultural values and technical monuments. This is extremely interesting for us since Belarus has lost much of its heritage in the wars that raged through our territory. And we are grateful to our British partners and friends for understanding our aspiration to restore Belarusia’s glorious history and the assistance they provide. We shall also aspire to become close partners in modern technological areas that both nations are so keen to master.