08. 12. 2016 18:04
"Slovakia is interested in dialogue between Belarus and the European Union", Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico told the media following talks in Minsk late last month with his Belarusian opposite number Andrei Kobyakov. He said he believes it is important to abandon the policy of European Union sanctions against Belarus, which he described as harmful. "The abolition of sanctions will bring the EU countries and Belarus closer," he added. Robert Fico expressed confidence that a document will be worked out to step up cooperation between the European Union and Belarus.
In Minsk he also discussed the current state of the Eastern Partnership initiative, of which Belarus is part. According to Fico, Eastern Partnership cannot be just a formal declaration. „It should be given more substance as it generates interest in partners on both the sides," Fico said welcoming Minsk's stance on the Eastern Partnership. He noted that the European Union needs to listen to the country's opinion. Addressing a press conference in the Belarusian capital, he explained why Bratislava started contacts with Minsk ahead of other Central European states: „I first visited Belarus in 2003, and now, on my present visit, I have seen a lot of new modern facilities. Over this time, the country has changed a lot, and I sincerely congratulate you on this. I am very pleased that we can see today's meeting as giving a new impetus to bilateral relations. And I want to add that I am glad that the sanctions have been lifted. This will help to bring the EU closer to Belarus. I think sanctions do not bring benefit to anyone."
Dialogue between the two countries has been going on for quite some time with varying degrees of intensity. Now Slovakia and Belarus are implementing a number of joint projects. 16 joint ventures and 12 companies with the participation of the Slovak capital are now operating in Belarus.
During his stay in Minsk, Fico was the highest-ranking EU politician to hold talks with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, which observers took as a sign that a new chapter in relations between the EU and - what was formerly regarded as a rogue state - is being opened. Lukashenko welcomed the opportunity to engage in closer dialogue with the European Union, and especially, Slovakia's role in making it happen. „Your country and your Minister of Foreign Affairs have done a lot so that we could normalize the relationship with the European Union. I am very grateful for it. We are actively cooperating with Slovakia in joint projects, your businesses work here. We are ready for the presence of your companies in Belarus," Lukashenko said.
Sanctions: for and against
In fact, objections to EU sanctions against Belarus and Russia have long been voiced by Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, like in a recent statement, where he called for a more constructive approach to relations with Moscow. According to analysts, Bratislava's approach to dealing with the East has always been somewhat different from that of many other EU member states, and not just because of close business links between Slovakia and Russia. Bratislava's role now seems to come into the spotlight again as it puts relations with Belarus on a new level.
Until recently all the doors in Europe were firmly shut to Belarusian politicians due to the country's poor human rights record. The Belarusian president Lukashenko had earned the reputation of being a hardliner reluctant to allow democracy to take a foothold in his land. Public protests against his rule have been a recurrent theme of the past two decades. Following the release of political prisoners in Belarus last year, relations between the EU and Minsk have been on the mend in an effort to win Lukashenko over at a time when relations between Europe and Moscow are at a record low. Belarusian opposition figures, like the prominent dissident Ales Byalyatsky, are critical of the latest European moves. „While Lukashenko is keen to benefit from closer economic ties with the EU - this does not lessen his dependence on, and subservience to, Moscow in military and economic terms," Byalyatsky said.
However, according to Yauheni Preiherman, policy director of the Liberal Club Analytical Society Robert Fico's visit to Minsk marked something of a breakthrough in relations between Minsk and the European Union. „This visit was the result of two years of negotiations between the EU and Belarus. The visit of the Slovak Prime Minister, who is holding the rotating presidency of the EU Council is a landmark. It certainly signifies that the rapprochement is working and that many roads are opening for co-operation, also on the economic side," Prehierman told RSI. He also underscored Minsk's role as a bridge between the EU and countries further East. „Slovakia is currently one of the countries who are trying to look over the walls that are being built between Russia and the West. The walls that make it very difficult for Belarus to situate itself on the geopolitical map of Europe," he added.
Rich pickings for businessmen
Currently two-way trade between Slovakia and Belarus amounts to 170 million US dollars a year, but the potential is much greater. The parties have agreed to establish a joint facility to produce high-tech products which will be exported to European Union and the Eurasian Union countries. Slovak exports to Belarus include mainly machinery, passenger cars and corn , while imports from that country encompass medical equipment, wire made of ferrous metals, petroleum products and chipboard. This year, the Belarusian company Belshina opened an office in Bratislava. Belarusian tractors have been assembled in Slovakia since 2011.
Several joint projects discussed during the visit included the construction of small hydroelectric power plants in Belarus. Another important area for cooperation is the petrochemical industry where Slovak companies are interested in liquefied natural gas supplies. A business forum is scheduled in Bratislava next year to facilitate co-operation in these and other fields.