Belarus And Poland: Brought Together By Russian Sanctions?
On 28-29 August the head of Belarusian diplomacy, Uladzimir Makiej, met with the top Polish officials in Warsaw.
The war in Ukraine and Russia’s self-imposed isolation can bring Belarusand Poland closer together.
Following the Russian ban on food from EU countries, Polish officials and food producers are hoping to find new markets for their products, and among their targets is Belarus.
Despite political disagreements, trade turnover dynamics indicate that the business is, against all odds, doing well. Poland remains one of the largest business partners for Belarus in the European Union.
Although both countries are on the outer edges of the tense EU-Russia relations, they both may actually find a common language through joint business creation.
One Polish Apple a Day, but not in Belarus?
Belarus decided not to join in on the Russian ban on food products from the European Union. However, Belarusian Minister Lieanid Zajac confirmed during a meeting with a senior Russian official, Siargey Daknvert, in Minsk on 12 August, that Belarus would not re-export banned goods from the EU to Russia. The Belarusian BelTA news agency and other state-run news media like to portray the authorities treating the issue of re-export seriously in their coverage.
After the Russian sanctions were imposed on 14 August, the Polish Minister of Agriculture and Development, Marek Sawicki, hastened to Minsk for talks with his Belarusian counterpart, Minister Zajac. They discussed the possibilities to increase cooperation in general, but also increase of Polish exports to Belarus. Minister Sawicki said later that the countries would consider the establishment of joint Polish-Belarusian food plants in Belarus. These joint venture companies could then go on to sell their goods to Customs Union member states.
"Belarus is open to cooperation with Poland, we will discuss the conditions until the end of August", Marek Sawicki tweeted after his meeting in Minsk. After his second visit to Minsk at the beginning of September, the Polish minister announced that the Belarusian side was interested in buying 200 thousand tonnes of milk from Polish producers each month to produce it and sell to Russia.
At the moment, the sale of apples and other fruits still remain one of the biggest concerns of Polish farmers. Expectations that Belarus would purchase more from Poland turned out to be in vain. On 4 September, after a visit of Polish fruits producers to Minsk, it became clear that the Belarusian side actually wants to decrease apple imports for the time being. Previously it re-exported part of these imports to Russia, now it is afraid to do so.
Uladzimir Makiej comes to Warsaw
On 28 August Uladzimir Makiej came to Warsaw on a two-day visit where he met with the head of Polish diplomacy, Radoslaw Sikorski, Janusz Piechocinski, the Deputy Prime Minister and other officials. There would be nothing spectacular to report about this visit if not the fact that a top level official meeting of Polish and Belarusian officials of this kind last took place a few years ago.
Since November 2010 when Radoslaw Sikorski, and his German colleague, Guido Westerwelle, met with Alexander Lukashenka in Minsk, relations appeared to be "suspended". Eventually, due to the results of the presidential elections, accusations of violations of human rights and electoral procedure fraud, Brussels tightened the screws on Belarus.
However, media in Poland and Belarus covered the recent meetings between Makiej and Sikorski without much enthusiasm. The Belarusian state-run Channel 1 just briefly mentioned the visit. Similar coverage was found on the Polish state TVP 1, which also did not pay much attention to the event.
The Polish press focused more on the economic aspect of the recent intensification of Poland-Belarus relations, and chances for Polish food producers with the potential to export Polish goods to Belarus.
When Two Parties Quarrel, Belarus Wins?
At the press conference following the Sikorski-Makiej meeting both officials commented on the meeting in a positive way. As both noted the issues related to Ukraine dominated the agenda of their discussion.
Minister Makiej argued that any problems between both countries should be solved through dialogue, to prevent them from escalating into a conflict. He also pointed out the positive tendencies in their mutual relations. Both countries are “destined to live together as neighbours”, he noted.
The Russian sanctions against European Union member states continue to severely affect Polish farmers and food producers. The losses appear to be tremendous for not only farmers, but also other companies specialising in transporting goods east. Polish exports of apples to Russia is worth nearly 500m Euro annually. The financial compensation to be given to Poland from the EU is clearly insufficient.
As Minister Sawicki said, Minsk offered to purchase raw products from Polish producers to produce food in Belarus and then to sell it domestically and to Customs Union member states.
Although it seems that Minsk is wary of buying food from Poland, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Michail Rusy stated that Belarus was ready to increase its food exports to Russia, including the Kaliningrad Oblast. By doing so they would actually need to allow Poles and the Baltic states to enter their market.
A Close Neighbour Makes for a Good Partner?
The geographical proximity of Poland and Belarus makes the countries close neighbours and convenient business partners.
Given that Minsk would be willing to find a compromise with Brussels, Warsaw could be helpful in Belarus' modernisation and breaking the long-standing international isolation in Europe. Poland could also potentially be an advocate for Minsk in Europe, as it is for Ukraine.
When the relations between Belarus with Poland or other EU countries are tense, Minsk is forced to rely increasingly on Russia and move away from the West.
It seems, however, that businesses are coping regardless of the current political climate. In 2012, Poland remained the second largest exporter of its goods to Belarus in the EU, following Germany. It was also a key country for imports of Belarusian goods (fifth overall). Trade turnover between the countries was the fourth largest in the EU.
The recent activation of Belarus-Poland relations means profits for both sides. In any case, Belarus is already making money on Russian sanctions against the West. Although the recent meetings have not led to any breakthroughs, still they have let in fresh air, even for business relations.