Agence Europe: For some months now, relations between Belarus and the international community have been improving. Does that mean your country is becoming a democracy?
Sergei Martynov: That means that many of the countries with which we had a little more strange relationship than today started to understand that engagement works. Disengagement actually doesn't work. This road of engagement I believe isn't only important for Belarus, because it's not a one way street; it's not only Belarus that benefits from that. This is a two-way street, this is for mutual advantage. So you cannot put things in this lopsided perspective: You are this or you are that and the rest is either here or there. The world is globalised now, things are intertwined everywhere, so a simplistic notion like that doesn't work, the world is much more sophisticated than that.
A.E.: This improvement can also be seen in relations with the EU with some sanctions suspended since October 2008. The Council of the EU will be assessing the situation towards the end of the year and could decide to lift all sanctions. Do you think there is a chance of this happening?
S.M.: Of course we believe there is a chance of this happening and, in and by itself, the already achieved level of changes in our relationship with the EU is important. If we compare the width and depth of our relationship of today with what we had last September, these are two different worlds so to speak. Of course, a lot remains to be done on both sides, there are lots of plans on both sides and the December meeting could be a milestone in these plans. But the important point is to work on both sides to make things happen, because I'd like to emphasise once more that it is to our mutual advantage these things do happen.
A.E. : After the Troika, Carl Bildt said he expected authorities from Belarus to do more. Does it mean that progress towards democracy isn 't bold enough?
S.M.: What Carl Bildt had in mind you have to ask Carl Bildt, I am not a reader of his mind, but I can assume, also from our discussion today, that the EU would like to see a little bit more pace on things where they have certain expectations of Belarus. But on the other hand, and I also put it in a very transparent and clear way at the meeting of the Troika, we also have expectations from the EU and we also think the EU has to move at a greater pace. So again it's mutual. To make things happen faster, which we both would like, we have to provide each other with more perspective, more incentives, more open-mindedness, because one step leads to the next.
A.E. : But more concretely, NGOs point to failings with regard to human rights and rule of law, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has recently made Belarus' special guest status subject to acceptance of political opposition and a legal moratorium on the death penalty. How do you think Belarus will respond to these expectations for instance?
S.M.: We will obviously work on specific issues which we believe are of importance, but here we have to keep in mind certain things. First of all, I don't know of a country where NGOs would not like to have more from the government than they do have, the same is true for Belarus, for the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the United States, whatever. The second element is to look at what the EU wants from its neighbours. As far as we understand, what the EU wants is prosperity and stability. If you look at these two criteria (…) then within the Eastern Partnership, Belarus is by far the best qualified country, by far number one. If you check GNP per capita, real income per capita, we would be ahead of everybody. Of course, this is prosperity by the standards of the region. You cannot compare it favourably to the prosperity of the Netherlands, of France or Sweden. But again, within the Eastern Partnership, we are without any doubt number one in terms of relative prosperity, and there are recent studies of the European Commission on that. In terms of stability we are also number one, because we are the only country in the Eastern Partnership, which doesn't have any territorial disputes or border quarrels with its neighbours. We are a country which doesn't have any internal quarrels and problems with religions beliefs, between different ethnicities. Belarus is a very good neighbour, the best neighbour of the Eastern Partnership. That doesn't mean that we don't have to improve, on any account, but we are working on that. Finally, what is important when we are talking about improvement is that we are talking about improvement not under the pressure or by instigation of the EU, but within our own society, for the benefit of our society, and at a pace, at a depth which is required by society. What we would like is to have development of society, modernization of society, democratization of society on a sustainable basis. We don't want to write nice laws, lofty words and just leave them on a scrap of paper which is incompatible with reality...which happens with some of our neighbours, who rushed ahead but couldn't sustain what they tried to do. We are strong believers in taking our time, in treading slowly but consistently.
A.E.: To achieve this, how do you see your role within the Eastern Partnership (EP) and what will this agreement do for Belarus?
S.M.: We believe the Eastern Partnership should be and is hopefully an agreement which allows for much more cooperation within the region and for the region. The region requires much more cooperation. Historically it happened that part of the region is now EU, part of the region is now the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or whatever (…). Restoring a regional interaction is in our view the main thrust of the Eastern partnership. And we, as Belarus, even before the Partnership was formally launched, started to work with our neighbours on specific projects that could become part of the Eastern Partnership. These are projects related to transportation, transit energy, customs cooperation, ecological issues. And all of these projects which we offered to our neighbours and to the European Commission also today at the Troika meeting, are not projects benefiting Belarus only. They are for mutual benefit, like the interconnection of the electric grids of the former Soviet Union and the EU.
A.E.: So your views are being taken into account in the Eastern Partnership?
S.M.: So far yes.
A.E.: And regarding specific measures, in the field of funding or visa regime for instance?
S.M.: We also have expectations from the EU, not only on the multilateral level, but also on a bilateral EU-Belarus relationship. Here we have in mind visa facilitation. It's discrimination to have visa fees for a Belarusian citizen twice as high as for citizens of Russia or Ukraine. It's also not benefiting Europe, if a person needs two or three weeks to get visas to go to another neighbouring country, like the Czech Republic or Poland. It doesn't speak favourably of Europe if a person has to visit embassies three times to get a visa and finally gets a “No”. That's shame, in a way, and we would like to have more pace here. Today (at the Troika meeting: Ed.) we heard certain commitments to work on that. These are important commitments, but we want to see more pace on that. On economic matters, Belarus has a dubious advantage of being together with the United States, Japan and Australia, as countries that have only most favored nations regime with the EU, no preferences. We are in good company, but we would prefer to have preferences (Generalised System of Preferences: Ed.) from the EU as a major economic and trading bloc.
A.E.: Your situation is made more complicated by the fact that Russia is not keen on the Eastern Partnership. How will you manage to forge closer relations with the EU without antagonising Russia?
S.M.: First of all and above all, as a matter of principle, our position is that we do not have to choose between friendship with Russia and the European Union. We are not making friends with one at the expense of the other. For a country located between two large power centres, the only meaningful course of action is to be on good terms with both. It's not rhetoric, we can't afford being on bad terms with either of them, not to speak of Russia which is an historic friend of ours, and not just a friend, it's part of us and we are part of the common heritage, so to speak. So we don't see an antagonistic relationship between these two relationships. Moreover, we are of the view that, as a country sitting in between, Belarus is very pragmatically interested in more consolidation of Europe, I mean the western part of Europe, the EU, and Russia and CIS European member countries. This isn't altruistic, we have to gain from this consolidation and we want to work for it. To give you an example of how in practical terms we see that: within the Eastern Partnership we insisted from the outset on inviting Russia to participate in the project activities of the Partnership which are of interest to Russia. And that eventually made its way into the document signed in Prague. Secondly, we not only insisted on that as a matter of principle, we already offered projects which are of interest not only to us, not only to the region but also to Russia. For example we offered, as a project, an extension of the international transport corridor 9B to Kaliningrad and southwards to the Black Sea, which will link Kaliningrad, through Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, with the Black Sea and also link the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea. So it would be a strategic link in itself and it seems that Russia would and could be interested in this project (…). So we are absolutely sure that through practical work on projects which are of mutual interest to everybody, we will remedy the apprehension which Russia may have about the Eastern Partnership, even though we believe there are no grounds for such apprehensions.
A.E. : On agriculture, do you expect any specific funding or technical cooperation from the EU to help your country respect the food standards of the EU?
S.M.: For two years already we have had a system of consultation with the European Commission on a number of issues. Agriculture and standardisation is one of these issues. It's important for us as this is an important part of our exports. We cannot get into the EU market on a number of food commodities without fulfilling the requirements. And to get there we need technical cooperation. So the European Commission is envisaging this technical assistance and certain funding for it. We already have this structure of expert level consultation where we will work together to advance as speedily as possible the issue of applying European standards to our food production.
A.E.: Does Belarus still wish to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as part of a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan?
S.M.: This was the decision of the customs union. We stick to the decision.
A.E.: Do you plan to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
S.M.: We can understand this is a very complex issue for everybody. Complex issues take time. We haven't made a final decision either way