On May 28-29 Minsk hosted the International Conference "Minsk after Riga: a Forum on Reforms, or How Can Belarus Adapt and Develop in the New Regional Contexts?" During the event, experts from Belarus, the EU, Ukraine and Russia reviewed the results of the Eastern Partnership summit held in Riga, as well as prospects for reforms and attraction of investments to the Belarusian economy, accession of Belarus to the European Higher Education Area and new challenges that have arisen in the media-sphere in connection with the situation in Ukraine. The Conference was organized by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) and the Latvian Embassy in Belarus with support from the ODB Brussels, EU Delegation to Belarus and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
During the International Conference "Minsk after Riga" Vyachaslau Kachanau, Head of the Division for Foreign Policy Studies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, gave an assessment of the current Belarus-EU relations, saying that due to the situation in Ukraine "the role that Belarus has played lately was quite unexpected to many" but that "it was a logical consequence of a consistent foreign policy". The Belarusian official stressed that today "together with out partners we need to look for solutions for most pressing issues and answers to general challenges and threats". According to Mr. Kachanau, "developments in the regions are proof of how incredibly dangerous a situation of an absolutized political choice can become when national interests are ignored". The representative of Belarusian MFA explained that the foreign policy department of Belarus supports both long-term and short-term individual projects of EU cooperation with the Eastern Partnership countries.
|Vyachaslau Kachanau, Head of the Division for Foreign Policy Studies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus|
Analyzing the results of the Riga Summit, Charge d'Affaires of the EU Delegation to Belarus Rodolphe Richard said that "all issues related to the Russian intervention and actions in the region have generated a complex discussion between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries". At the same time, according to him, the EU commends the efforts Minsk made to settle the regional crisis and to provide a platform for negotiations.
|Rodolphe Richard, Charge d'Affaires of the EU Delegation to Belarus|
"At the moment the European Neighbouhood Policy is being reviewed, and we organize consultations with various stakeholders, including Belarus," noted Rodolphe Richard. "We need to work together on specific projects and issues. Our relations have huge potential. To achieve that, we need to work on normalizing our relations, but the presence of political prisoners and the situation with human rights remain a stumbling block for us," noted the Charge d’Affaires of the EU Delegation to Belarus.
According to the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Latvia to Belarus Mihails Popkovs, Latvia’s representation in the EU Council "happened in a difficult period that was full of challenges: the war in the south of Ukraine, the threat of instability caused by immigration, terrorism and the economic crisis in southern Europe, as well as the economic slowdown in the EU, have all challenged the general system of stability in Europe".
Academic director of BISS Alexei Pikulik gave an opinion that the external contexts "have been quite turbulent lately".
In the opinion of senior analyst of BISS Dzianis Melyantsou, the Eastern Partnership has given Belarus "more than we could expect: there are joint projects totaling up to 40 million euros per year, negotiations on relaxation of visa requirements and a dialogue on modernization". According to Mr. Melyantsou, "we should not expect any breakthroughs in Belarus-EU relations; they will most likely develop in small steps in certain areas as the matters of political prisoners and lifting of sanctions are still unresolved and there are such constraints as mutual distrust and unreasonable expectations from partners".
During the panel discussion "Belarus in EEU: Integration and the Effects of the Russian Crisis" participants of the conference pointed out that the Belarusian economy needs reforms. According to independent expert George Plaschinsky, Belarusian export to Russia has decreased by about 35% in January-March of this year. "We all saw the consequences of the dependence on the Russian market during the currency crisis of December 2014", the expert said.
Innovation and new jobs both in the EU and in Belarus can come from small and medium private businesses, said Charge d'Affaires of the EU Delegation to Belarus Rodolphe Richard. In his interview, the diplomat explained that the structure of export in Belarus "is distributed very clearly: products going to the European Union are not the same as those going to Russia", meaning that the EU traditionally buys Belarusian oil products while the Russian Federation purchases finished products such as household appliances, food products, etc. According to the diplomat, when for any reason the demand in these markets declines, the system breaks down.
Reforms, according to the Head of Projects at Pact Balazs Jarabik, are needed in the Belarusian system of public administration: "State management is the main thing that the EU can do for Belarus. To have good state management we need to build trust – we need to build relations that both Belarusian citizens and the government can believe in".
In his opinion, the current system of control "cements" the management system, which leads to an authoritarian management style. According to Mr. Jarabik, the work of Belarusian officials is still based on controlling rather than motivating others. At the same time, in his view, changes are needed in the civil society: "Civil society organizations have no initiative to do something on their own. There is pressure on the government as they are expected to do something."
|Marina Dymovich, Head of Legal of the Association of European Business (Minsk)|
Speaking about attracting investment to Belarus and about guarantees for rights of investors, Marina Dymovich, Head of Legal of AEB, noted that the system of normative legal acts is unstable. According to her, government agencies do not communicate well enough with foreign investors. In her opinion, they should provide information in a transparent and uniform way.
Discussing reforms of the Belarusian higher education system and accession of the country to the Bologna process, participants of the Conference pointed out that it is necessary to connect education with the labour market. Within these reforms, Belarus intends to revise the system of qualifications and take into account the experience of different countries.
Experts from Belarus and Lithuania took part in a panel discussion dedicated to new challenges in the Belarusian media field and changes that happened to the operating conditions of the mass media. Participants of the Conference discussed ways to confront Russian propaganda, as well as conditions of accession of Belarus to the European Convention on Transfrontier Television. According to Mantas Martišius, PhD, associate professor in Vilnius University, if cases of propaganda are detected, this Convention provides for a temporary suspension of content but cannot stop the work of foreign media for good. Also, as Head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Andrey Bastunets noted, Belarus has concluded the majority of its agreements on national security, including information security, with CIS countries rather than EU countries.