Honouring translators, protecting the Soviet version of history – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
In May, Minsk continued its policy of following in Moscow’s footsteps by exploiting World War II for political purposes. On Victory Day, Belarusian diplomats made statements about alleged ‘attempts to falsify history’. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei invited diplomats posted in Minsk to a controversial historical site featuring a monument to Joseph Stalin.
The United Nations supported a Belarusian initiative to honour professional translators and interpreters. This move may also have practical benefits for the country, which has a strong academic tradition in training professional translators.
Belarusian diplomats held largely mid-level discussions on trade and political relations with their counterparts from a dozen countries. The only scheduled top-level visit to Minsk failed to materialise when Estonia’s foreign minister postponed his trip indefinitely.
Protecting the Soviet interpretation of history
In the first half of May, Belarusian diplomats focused on events commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is commonly known in the post-Soviet space). To this day, Victory Day celebrations are the Belarusian diplomatic service’s largest public relations campaign.
Belarusian diplomatic missions participated in wreath-laying ceremonies, commemorative meetings, concerts, exhibitions, and other events in forty countries alongside their counterparts from Russia and certain other CIS countries as well as local officials.
On 5 May, the permanent missions of Belarus and Russia to the United Nations organised a commemorative ceremony in New York dedicated to the 72nd anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. Tellingly, diplomats from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine refused to join other post-Soviet countries in the ceremony. They object to the use of the historical event as a tool for achieving modern political goals.
A day earlier, the delegation of Belarus to the OSCE made a statement dedicated to Victory Day on behalf of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The statement spoke strongly but vaguely against ‘attempts to falsify the history of the war and erase the tragic lessons of history from our memories’. Thus, Belarus once against sided with Russia, which uses such accusations to carry out political attacks against its neighbours, including Ukraine and the Baltic States.
On 8 May, Vladimir Makei invited the heads of diplomatic missions posted to Belarus to accompany him for a visit to Stalin’s Line. However, this ‘historical and cultural complex’ just outside Minsk has virtually no relation to the struggle of Belarusians against Nazi occupation.
Makei’s choice of venue is dubious. Belarus has many genuine historical sites and WWII memorials worth visiting for remembrance. However, Stalin’s Line features a monument to Stalin – the butcher responsible for the death and repression of hundreds of thousands of people in Belarus, including most of the country’s elite.
Belarus’s implicit support for the Soviet interpretation of the historical events of the mid 20th century will hardly serve to strengthen its ties with its non-Russian neighbours or improve relations with the Western world.
An uncontroversial initiative succeeds
On 24 May, Belarus’s permanent mission to the United Nations brought to fruition a new multilateral initiative on honouring professional translation ‘as a trade and an art’. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the role of professional translation in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding, and development.
Twenty-seven nations co-sponsored the document, which Belarus initiated and drafted together with Azerbaijan. The resolution declared 30 September International Translation Day.
Unlike certain other Belarusian initiatives, such as on protecting the traditional family, this idea met with no resistance from other members of the UN. The particular attention Belarus pays to this profession is no coincidence. Many senior Belarusian diplomats, including the country’s ambassador to the UN Andrei Dapkiunas, who introduced the resolution, hold their first and sometimes only academic degree in professional translation.
Many Belarusians work as translators or interpreters in the Russian section of the UN translation service. The Belarusian State Linguistic University signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations on training candidates for competitive language examinations.
Belarus intends to further develop this idea by initiating an international instrument that would enhance the legal protection of translators and interpreters in situations of armed conflict and post-conflict peace-building.
A multi-directional approach to boosting trade
As the summer holidays approach, the Belarusian foreign ministry is intensifying its political and trade consultations with countries from different regions of the world. However, the only top-level foreign dignitary to visit Belarus in May was the outgoing Serbian president.
Belarusian officials received officials from Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Egypt in Minsk on 10, 18, and 25 May respectively for meetings of bilateral trade and economic commissions. They also met in the same format with Czech officials in Prague on 16-17 May.
Belarusian exports to the Czech Republic, Tajikistan, and Egypt dropped dramatically in 2016 compared to 2015. However, this trend was partially reversed in January-March 2017, when Belarus’s deliveries to Egypt and Tajikistan increased manifold (4.2 and 2.4 times against the same period of 2016). Exports to the Czech Republic have continued to decline.
In relations with Turkmenistan, the Belarusian government is sticking to its declared goal of a $500m turnover, encouraged by a modest recovery in 2016 (up to $120.6m). Belarus is now pitching diesel trains, railway cars, and lifts to Turkmenistan. While the two countries have problems with currency conversion in reciprocal payments, Belarus is considering buying cotton under barter arrangements.
Also in May, Belarus held consultations on the deputy-foreign-minister level with Pakistan and Turkmenistan in Minsk, Croatia in Zagreb, and Greece in Athens. Working-level contacts took place in Minsk with Finnish and Australian diplomats. The negotiating partners focused on trade and investment issues as well as cooperation in international organisations.
The Belarusian foreign ministry had also announced a working visit to Minsk by Sven Mikser, Estonia’s foreign minister, on 23 May. The Estonian diplomat was due to meet with his Belarusian counterpart as well as unnamed ‘leaders of the government and the parliament of the Republic of Belarus’.
However, the visit was postponed indefinitely without much fuss. The press service of Estonia’s foreign ministry explained the cancellation by blaming ‘schedule changes in Belarus’. Interestingly, Vladimir Makei was in Minsk on 23 May.
In the summer months, Belarus is expected to focus more on multilateral diplomacy as it prepares to host a Minsk meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Central European Initiative.
Can new companies replace state giants in Belarus?
Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka recently announced that full-cycle car production is to start in Belarus this month; this will be a first for the country. So far, only Chinese-designed cars have been assembled in Belarus.
Meanwhile, the holding Amkodor presented its first tractor at the Belagro exhibition on 6-10 June in Minsk. This means that the Belarusian government has made another concession to the privately-owned holding, allowing it to challenge the national industrial giant MTZ, which has manufactured tractors for many decades.
As most major Belarusian machine-building firms such as MAZ and MTZ struggle with problems, the government supports them to avoid social disturbances. Nevertheless, it also supports new projects, which create competition for existing enterprises and thus tacitly change the political economy of the state.
Chinese cars for Belarusian public servants
Once, there was a private-sector initiative to launch joint car production with the American company Ford and the Iranian company Iran Khodro. Both projects were terminated after assembling only several hundred cars. Thus, the forthcoming launch of a full-cycle car production factory makes the joint Belarusian-Chinese project a remarkable achievement.
Assembly production of Chinese-designed Geely cars began in Belarus in 2013. The new factory, near the city of Barysau, is set to reach a production level amounting to 60,000 cars a year by the end of 2017.
From the outset, the government has emphasised that 90 per cent of these cars would be exported. Some exports to Russia and Kazakhstan have succeeded, albeit perhaps with Beijing's assistance.
However, Minsk has also taken measures to ensure sales within the country. In April 2016, president Lukashenka announced that 'There will be no imported cars for civil servants, except for the prime minister, vice premiers, and top-ranking officials,' and stipulated that only Geely cars manufactured in Belarus be used for state needs. Moreover, as Tut.by noted, the new law regulating taxi firms looks as if it compels taxi drivers to buy Geelys.
Another new project in the machine-building sector involves launching the production of a tractor by the holding Amkodor; this will compete with models offered by MTZ, a state-owned firm. The government has not only allowed Alyaksandr Shakutin, a co-owner of Amkodor, to challenge MTZ, it even intends to use Chinese loans to fund the project, including construction of a new plant.
At first glance, this seems logical. Belarusian authorities consistently support the rising business empire of Shakutin. For example, on 24 May, Industry Minister Vital Vouk remarked on Shakutin's holdings Amkodor and Saleo's intention to invest $2.1bn in further expansion in 2016—2030.
Both holdings have enjoyed success. Saleo was established by Shakutin and his partners in 2014 as a firm producing hydraulics for mobile machinery which had earlier been imported. By now, as Vouk emphasises, 30-60 per cent of necessary hydraulics are manufactured in Belarus.
A patriotic business?
Shakutin emphasises that his business is all about manufacturing and insists on his patriotism.
The Belarusian web-portal Tut.by, however, has pointed out that a very large share of his firms' sales involve Belarusian state purchases. He has also acquired several formerly state-owned enterprises without competition and for little money. Likewise, Shakutin used to employ a number of formerly high-level Belarusian state officials, such as Lukashenka's former economy assistant Siarhei Tkachou, BRSM (a pro-government youth union) leader Alyaksandr Nakhaenka, MAZ director Mikalai Kasten', transportation minister Ivan Shcherba, and others. This obviously strengthens his ties to the government, Tut.by points out.
Shakutin responds to these comments by emphasising his efforts to export, underlining that the factories he bought were destitute and he salvaged them. He also claims that he employed former officials because of their superb managerial qualities.
Nevertheless, Shakutin's ties to the government are obvious. For many years, he worked in the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament and held a key role in the organisation of the pro-goverment Belaya Rus' movement. There has even been talk of EU sanctions, as he is 'Lukashenka's oligarch.' However, this is an unfair characterisation, as Shakutin is merely a tool for the Belarusian leadership.
MTZ vs. Amkodor
The government's decision to allow Shakutin to launch a project which could have an adverse impact on a Belarusian state-run company must be understood in context. A number of older, state-owned companies are seriously struggling. While three years ago MAZ was producing 24,000 trucks a year, this year the enterprise expects to manufacture less than 11,000.
The government plans to provide financial support for the branch. On 24 May, Deputy Prime Minister Syamashka announced that the government was to invest $500m in MAZ, and $645m in Homselmash, an agricultural equipment manufacturer. For 2016-2030, MTZ needs $1.1bn of investments and has almost no funds of its own.
It will take Minsk a significant amount of money to develop the plant, but the struggle may succeed. The case of BelAZ has served as an example for the Belarusian government: it invested $800m into the firm, which manufactures huge trucks. As a result, BelAZ developed new models and succeeded in increasing its share on the global market, which is now estimated at almost 30 per cent.
Between Russia and China
Where exactly Minsk will find the money to invest in its machine building industry remains unclear. Government officials refer, inter alia, to Chinese loans; recent contacts with Beijing also support this hypothesis. Less clear is how Minsk will involve Russia in developing Belarusian industry: will it strive to limit cooperation or will it be willing to give the Russians anything if they can save companies from bankruptcy?
Most probably, the government policy on Russian involvement will remain ad hoc and pragmatic. On 24 May, Deputy Prime Minister Syamashka revealed that during the recent Belarus-Russian negotiations on oil and gas, the two governments agreed to prepare proposals on three industrial integration projects – these concern the petrochemical and machine building enterprise.
In 2011—2014, Belarus and Russia had already agreed on five industrial integration projects involving the Belarusian firms MAZ, Intehral, MZKT, Pelenh and Hrodna Azot. In recent years, however, Minsk and Moscow have kept silent on these projects.
Minsk will certainly use cooperation with Russia to develop its machine building sector, but the Belarusian government is considering all its options. Thus, the authorities are promoting new privately-owned production projects. In the future, these could replace giants like MTZ. In addition, Minsk hopes to use China as a source of loan-funding and technology.
In general, the development and state support of major Belarusian businesses such as Shakutin's holdings resemble the famous post-WWII South Korean business conglomerates called chaebols, the most famous of which are Samsung and Daewoo. These helped the government adapt and develop the national economy in exchange for state support.