International Conference “Minsk after Riga: a Forum on Reforms, or How Can Belarus Adapt and Develop in the New Regional Contexts?” was held in Minsk on 28–29 May

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The mission of the conference was for experts from Belarus, the European Union, Ukraine, and Russia to evaluate the outcomes of the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, prospects of reforms in the Belarusian economy and efforts to raise investments, Belarus’s accession to the European Higher Education Area, and new challenges in the media field in the context of the crisis in Ukraine. The organizers of the conference were the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) and the Embassy of the Latvian Republic in Belarus; the event was held under the auspices of ODB Brussels, EU Delegation to Belarus and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

When commenting on the current status of the relations between Belarus and the EU in the course of the International Conference “Minsk after Riga”, Viačaslaŭ Kačanaŭ, Head of the Department for Foreign Policy Analysis at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, said that in the light of the recent situation in Ukraine “the role that Belarus has been playing lately has become unexpected for many”; however, “it is a logical consequence of the country’s consistent foreign policy.” The Belarusian official emphasized the need for “joint search for solutions to pressing problems and ways to effectively address common challenges and threats with partners.”

According to Kačanaŭ, “the events in the region became evidence of how dangerous a situation of absolutized geopolitical choice can be when it leaves no room for national interests.” The representative of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry explained that the country’s foreign service supported multi-speed and individual collaboration projects of the European Union with the Eastern Partnership member states.

When summing up the results of the summit in Riga, Charge d'Affaires of the EU Delegation to Belarus Rodolphe Richard said that “all of the issues associated with Russia’s interference and activities in the region have generated a complex discussion between the EU and the Eastern Partnership member states.” That said, the European Union appreciates Minsk’s efforts to resolve the regional crisis and its providing a platform for negotiations, he said. “The European Union is currently in the process of revising its Neighbourhood Policy, and we are having consultations with various stakeholders, including with Belarus,” Rodolphe Richard said.

“We should work together on specific projects and specific issues. We have an immense capacity in our relationship. To this end we should pursue further normalization of relations; however, the fact that Belarus still has political prisoners and the human rights situation remain a stumbling block,” Charge d'Affaires of the EU Delegation to Belarus said.

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Latvia to Belarus Mihails Popkovs said that the Latvian Presidency of the Council of the EU fell on a complicated and challenging period—the war in the south of Ukraine, threat of instability stemming from immigration, terrorism and the economic crisis in the south of Europe, and economic slowdown in the European Union challenged the common system of stability in Europe.”

Alexei Pikulik, BISS Academic Director, referred to external contexts as “recently turbulent.”

Dzianis Melyantsou, Senior Analyst at BISS, noted that Belarus received from the Eastern Partnership “more than it could have expected—including joint projects worth a total of up to EUR 40 million per year, talks over visa facilitation and dialogue on modernisation.”

According to Melyantsou, “no breakthrough should be expected in the relationship between Belarus and the EU; this relationship will likely keep developing in smaller steps in certain sectors, because of the issues of political prisoners in the country and the lifting of sanctions that remain unresolved, alongside such deterrents as mutual distrust and inflated expectations of the partners.”

In the course of the panel discussion “Belarus in the EEU: Integration and Consequences of the Russian Crisis” the participants in the conference noted the need for reforming the Belarusian economy. Independent expert Hiaorhi Plaščynski pointed to the drop in Belarus’s export supplies to Russia by approximately 35% in the first quarter of 2015 compared with the first three months of last year. “The currency crisis of December 2014 showed us all the effects of the dependence on the Russian market,” the expert said.

Small and medium-sized privately-owned companies can become a source of innovation and new jobs, said Charge d'Affaires of the EU Delegation to Belarus Rodolphe Richard. In his interview the diplomat explained that the structure of Belarusian export has “a clear distribution pattern: the commodities going to the European Union are not the ones going to Russia.” He referred to the fact that the EU traditionally purchases Belarusian oil products, whereas the Russian Federation buys finished products: household appliances, foods, etc. According to the diplomat, when demand is compromised in those markets for various reasons, a disruption follows.

Balázs Jarábik, Project Director at PACT, said that the Belarusian system of state administration also required reforms: “state management is the area, in which Belarus can benefit from the European Union. Confidential relations must be built for state management—the type of relations, in which both Belarusian citizens and the state will trust.” According to him, the existing system of control “cements” the administrative system, which brings about the authoritarian management style.

According to Jarábik, the work of Belarusian officials has so far been based on control, rather than motivation. At the same time, according to him, amendments need to be introduced to civil society as well: “Civil society organizations have no initiative to do something on their own. There is pressure on the state as an expectation for the state to do something.”

Commenting on raising investments in Belarus and guarantees of investors’ rights, Maryna Dymovich, Head of Legal at the Association of European Business (AEB), said that the system of regulatory legal acts remained inconsistent. On the part of the state authorities there is not enough communication with foreign investors, and information should be provided on a transparent and uniform basis, the expert said.

While addressing the higher education system reform in Belarus and the country’s accession to the Bologna process, the participants in the conference noted the need for a stronger connection between education and the labor market. As part of the reform, Belarus is planning to revise its qualifications system and factor in the best international practices.

The panel discussion focusing on new challenges in the Belarusian media field and changes in the operation environment of the Belarusian media in the context of the Ukrainian crisis brought together experts from Belarus and Lithuania. The participants explored possibilities for resisting the Russian propaganda, as well as the conditions for Belarus to join the European Convention on Transfrontier Television. According to Dr. Mantas Martišius of Vilnius University, as soon as propaganda has been detected, the convention enables content suspension without allowing the blocking of foreign media.

Andrei Bastunets, Chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said that most of the national security-related agreements, including those on information safety, were signed with the CIS member states, not with the European Union.

The Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) implements the REFORUM project “Via the Modernization of Belarus to a Competitive Society” under the auspices of the European Commission and PACT.