Belarus and Georgia: Russian lessons and Lukashenka’s new strategy
Diplomacy between Belarus and Georgia has taken on new life. On 20 December 2016 Belarus finally opened its embassy in Tbilisi. This decision, long and complicated for both sides, has proved their intention to renew bilateral dialogue. This step could also indicate a new Georgia–Belarus strategy towards Russia.
Belarus and Georgia have never been strategic partners. The countries’ diplomacy suffered numerous crises due to the Russia-Georgia conflict and the strong ties between Belarus and Russia. Furthermore, the economic side of the partnership is at an extreme low as well. In 2016 Belarus – Georgia trade came to only $63m, making Georgia only the 57th most important trade partner for Belarus.
The Russia factor
Georgia and Belarus have had a rather complicated diplomatic history. Lack of progress in the development of bilateral relations between Belarus and Georgia has mainly been due to the Russia factor: Russia and Georgia suffered a severe diplomatic crisis in 2008.
As Russia's ally, Belarus was expected to support its actions. However, after the conflict ended, Belarus made a surprising decision. The Belarusian authorities refused to support or recognise the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, going against Russia’s wishes.
However, following this decision, Belarus nevertheless decided to freeze its partnership with Georgia. On May 22 2014, in an interview for the Russian channel Dozhd, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka disclosed that he had even rejected the former Georgian leader Micheil Saakashvili’s invitation to visit Georgia because of 'extra problems with the Russian authorities'.
The sides turned a new page in bilateral dialogue in April 2015. The historical visit of Lukashenka to Georgia contributed significantly to diplomatic ties. During his first visit to the country, Lukashenka outlined his priorities for Belarus and made some key statements on important issues. Lukashenka mentioned that in the near future, the sides will be able to find solutions so the countries can 'live in the same family as the three countries once did'. He stated that there are is nothing inherently contradictory between the Georgian people, Belarusians, and Russians.
How can Belarus benefit from the Russia-Georgia crisis?
Today, the sides share common interests. Georgia enjoys a good reputation with EU countries. The country withdrew its CIS membership in 2008. Georgia and Belarus have also both joined the Eastern partnership programme. In June 2014 Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the European Union. Belarus could benefit from this situation.
During his visit to Georgia, Lukashenka remarked that the sides did not have contradictory politics, and he expressed gratitude to former leader Micheil Saakashvili and President of Georgia Giorgi Margvelashvili for Georgia’s support of Belarus in the West.
In return for Georgia’s diplomatic support of Belarus, Lukashenka seems ready to work out a new dialogue platform. The Belarusian leader hinted that the country could become a mediator between Russia and Georgia as they try to normalise relations. During his visit to Georgia in April 2015, the Belarusian president stressed that after the conflict between Georgia and Russia 'it would be great if Georgia could build these relationships in a softer way and not resort to any harsh measures.'
In his turn, on 24 April 2015 Margvelashvili stressed the importance Minsk's role in helping to find a peaceful way out of the situation in Ukraine. This statement could also be a signal for Russia to start a dialogue with Georgia.
Thus, in the near future the partnership could lead to a diplomatic exchange between Georgia and Belarus. Belarus will receive more support from Georgia during dialogue with the EU, while Belarus will try to create a new platform for dialogue between Russia and Georgia. The opening of the new embassy following these statements proves the possibility of such a scenario.
The economy first
Belarus considers progress in economic relations to be a test of the possibility for future political normalisation. The first step in the development of relations is to achieve a $200m trade turnover in 2017.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Uladzimir Makej paid an official visit to Georgia on 20 December 2016. Makej took part in the opening ceremony of the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Tbilisi. The '$200m-aim' is bolstered by the fact that the former head of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce Mikhail Myatlikau has become the ambassador of Belarus to Georgia.
However, this figure seems unrealistic. At the end of 2014, Belarus's trade with Georgia stood at $64.18m. In 2015 the bilateral trade was estimated at only $44.9m. To change the situation, the Chambers of Commerce and Industry of the two countries signed a package of 15 documents to more than triple trade. Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Mikhail Rusy disclosed that more than 140 companies from Georgia and Belarus will be working on increasing the trade turnover.
In the future, Georgia is likely to continue its strategy of cooperation with Belarus. Thanks to Belarus, jointly developed products of the sides can be sold on the markets of the Eurasian Economic Union. In 2006 Russia banned Georgian wine products despite the fact that Russia accounted for 80% of Georgian wine sales. However, Belarus is ready to allow Georgian wine makers to bottle wines and cognac spirits in Belarus, Rusy states.
The sides are also establishing joint ventures with Minsk Tractor Works to produce vehicles. In March 2016, the two countries' businesses met in Minsk. Representatives of 50 Belarusian and 30 Georgian companies discussed ventures projects in mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, and food production.
The Georgian side understands the potential profit. In March 2016 Prime Minister of Georgia Giorgi Kvirikashvili met with Lukashenka and assured the president of the partnership between the two countries. As Kvirikashvili stressed: 'There are huge investment opportunities if we cooperate. In all spheres, we plan on significant progress.'
What is next?
A new page of Georgia-Belarus relations could result in two scenarios. Firstly – Belarus suffers another diplomatic crisis with Russia. In this case Belarusian authorities would start developing economic relations with Georgia to gauge Russia’s reaction. In the second scenario, there is an agreement between Belarus and Russia to start normalising relations between Georgia and Russia. The second scenario appears more realistic at this time.
During the opening ceremony of the Belarusian embassy, the two sides agreed to continue constructive dialogue and mutual support within the EU's 'Eastern Partnership' initiative. This can be regarded as part of the deal. What's more, Belarus and Georgia also discussed facilitating an official visit from the president of Georgia to Belarus in 2017. The visit could result in a final high-level agreement on normalisation.
Dzmitry Halubnichy is an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, Belarus.
Belarus prepares to expand its visa-free zone
In October-December 2016, almost 2,000 tourists took advantage of new visa-free regulations to visit Hrodna Region. In response to the increasing amount of foreign tourists, Hrodna Region has started working on two important initiatives: visa-free railway voyages and launching low-cost flights to Hrodna airport.
However, making railway services and the Hrodna airport accessible visa-free will not attract many more tourists if more tourist services are not first developed. Extension of the visa-free territory to the whole of Belarus and investment in the development of services would significantly improve the popularity of Belarus for tourists.
Two months visa-free
On 26 October, Belarus announced visa-free entry for tourists. According to presidential decree 318: 'Concerning the introduction of visa-free entry and departure for foreigners', tourists can stay up to 5 days on the territory of Hrodna Region
From 26 October to 26 December, almost 2,000 foreign nationals visited the visa-free territory. The majority of tourists (1,358 people) were Lithuanians, followed by Poles (795). Belarus has also attracted tourists from Germany, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, as well the USA and even Africa.
Aleh Andreychyk, Head of the regional Sport and Tourism Management committee, told Belta that the Old Town, zoo, farmsteads, and night clubs proved the most popular destinations for tourists. Although many tourists highlighted the cheap prices, the insufficient amount of English spoken in services became an important issue.
Opinions on visa-free regulation
In December, Hrodna.life conducted series of interviews with tourists who had came to Belarus according to the visa-free regime. A Spanish family which had recently visited Hrodna noted that Belarus should work more on its image and marketing if it wants to attract more tourists to the country, which remains unknown and under-discovered for many foreigners.
Another traveller from Brazil noted that Belarus is far from the typical Soviet country due to its architecture and developed technologies. Michal Sikorski, a Polish blogger, visited Hrodna and posted a video report. Michal called upon Belarusians to preserve their uniqueness and highlighted the architecture of Hrodna, as well as its night clubs.
Local activists from Hrodna have also noted the significant increase in tourists over the last two months. Yauhen Skarabutan told Radyjo Racyja that these are only the first steps on the way to a visa-free regime between Belarus and the EU.
The next step for visa-free regulation
The Head of Hrodna Region executive committee, Uladzimir Kraucou, reported that due to the increasing amount of tourists, the visa-free zone needs to be extended. Although this might sound as if the authorities are suggesting enlarging the visa-free zone, amendments to the law really only entail expanding visa-free access to railway and flights.
For now, it is only possible to enter Belarus visa-free by car or bus. Visa-free trains from Poland to Belarus would attract more tourists. When travelling by car, visitors have to purchase insurance and spend an unpredictable amount of time on the border. Train travel would remove these arguments.
Authorities in Hrodna Region suggest making the recently launched train route Hrodna – Białystok – Warszawa – Kraków visa-free.
Moreover, Hrodna Region is proposing to launch low-cost routes to Hrodna airport and include the airport in its visa-free zone. Today, the airport is very small and underdeveloped, with only several routes. Low-cost flights from the EU would require investment in airport equipment and better transportation with easy access to town.
The last proposal is still being discussed. Authorities suggest creating a new border checkpoint at 'Safieva – Lipchany'. Hrodna Region authorities note that they are working actively on extending visa-free regulation. Nevertheless, these proposals, even if quickly implemented, are insufficient for making tourism to Belarus truly popular.
Small steps, small achievements
So far, Belarus has taken small steps to liberalise its visa regime. The number of tourists to Belarus has significantly decreased since 2010. Introducing visa-free entrance to one of the Belarusian regions two months ago was the first attempt to open up the country. However, learning from the experience of neighbouring countries could help improve the model for developing local tourism.
For instance, Podlaskie region has created a centre for promotion of the region. The centre actively participates in campaigns aimed at attracting tourists to the region, primarily from Belarus. Recently, at the centre's initiative, the Bialystok Opera sold tickets to Belarusians in exchange for free visas. Creating such a centre in Hrodna could develop new methods of attracting tourists to the region.
The minor extensions suggested by Hrodna authorities have so far been ineffective in changing Belarus’s image and popularity among foreign tourists. Introducing low-cost flights to Hrodna will be unlikely to encourage many more tourists to visit Belarus until the airport is better-equipped and connected to the town. The low level of English knowledge, reflected in the lack of English or Latin writing in public spaces will create an additional obstacle for tourists.
Bialystok, the closest Polish town across the border with similar population, has 18 hotels on Booking.com. Hrodna only has five Read more
Extending the visa-free territory to the whole of Belarus would be much more effective. A recent example of successful visa liberalisation is Kazakhstan, where visas are no loner required for citizens of 37 developed countries for up to 30 days. The country aims to create a large international financial centre and receive direct investments from states such as Austria, Canada, and Sweden. Such a measure in Belarus would make the country more popular in the West. The increased degree of openness brought about by a visa-free regime could only be beneficial economically, socially, and culturally.
However, amending visa regulations will not attract a large amount of tourists unless services are developed first. At the moment, it would be savvy for Belarus to invest in the tourism sphere, at least in Hrodna Region. For comparison, Bialystok, the closest Polish town across the border with more or less the same population, has 18 hotels. Meanwhile, according to Booking.com Hrodna only has five. More hotels and hostels, along with better food and entertainment services, would encourage foreigners to visit Belarus more than once.
All that said, the successful introduction of the visa-free zone in Hrodna Region and the possible extensions to regulations still point to the intention of the country to open up and improve relations with the EU. The next logical step for Belarus could be the ratification of the cross-border movement agreement, which Poland and Lithuania have already approved, and cancellation of visas for developed countries, as in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.