BELARUS: Belarus seeks stronger ties with America
"We believe the situation is unfair," Mikhail Khvostov, Belarus' ambassador to Washington, says to start our interview. "They claim we have a dictatorship. It is simply not true. There is always a difference between claims and reality."
"They" is the United States and the West European governments that have accused this former Soviet republic of not adhering to democratic norms.
But the ambassador says that his nation's policies reflect the position it is in as it passes through a transition from its past as a Soviet republic with centralized decision-making and economy to a modern, democratic market economy. He says a successful transition requires strong central government to manage it.
"We've only had ten, twelve years of independence," Ambassador Khvostov says. "Look at where the United States was ten years after independence." He continues, explaining the policies of his government: "We are building our country for the benefit of the Belarusian people. No country with a weak state power can build a liberal economy and maintain social protection. The United States and the EU countries built their states with strong governments. If the state does not retain a strong power, then mafia powers will take over and it will be the end of a beautiful democracy."
He says that Belarus recognizes the importance of America and is intent on building good relations with Washington. "We're really interested in building a relationship with the United States," the ambassador says. "But both countries need to improve relations. The United States is responsible as well. We had a good start in the early 90s. The United States was very helpful with Chernobyl humanitarian assistance."
Belarus in turn has made some of the right moves. The country scrapped its nuclear programs, inherited from the Soviet Union, and signed the Lisbon agreement in 1994.
"We refused to be a nuclear state," the ambassador says with emphasis.
The problems seem to lie mainly on the political level.
"We have no problems in trade cooperation," the ambassador explains. Belarusian exports to the United States amount to some $400 million a year. Imports from the United States are slightly more, about $450 million."
He also points out that despite political difficulties, US companies such as MacDonald's and Coca Cola represent the largest foreign investor. "The United States is number one in Belarus for joint ventures," he says.
The most famous Belarusian export is tractors, a product the ambassador sees great potential for in US farming states. He recently visited Idaho and Utah to see some of these tractors at work. "It's a good product and very competitively priced." In world markets, the Belarus Tractor has a market share of 30% in some weight categories.
And Belarus recognizes that it needs foreign investment to develop its economy and provide jobs. To stimulate private business in general, a law was passed last year that will make it easier for foreign and Belarusian companies to register new companies, cutting the time required from a couple of months to two weeks.
He says that foreign investment and an active manufacturing sector has led to the 10 million Belarusians enjoying a higher living standard than most citizens of other CIS nations.
"The World Bank and the IMF say Belarus is economically much better off than other CIS countries," the ambassador says. "UNDP's Human Development Index ranks Belarus number one in the CIS."
The Human Development Index takes into account such factors as standard of living, health care, culture and education.
But the ambassador is candid about some of the difficulties in his country. Speaking about the tendency of some employers in newly independent states to pay employees very late or not at all, he says the government believes: "It's our duty to force enterprises to pay its workers. The state is responsible to the people."
The country has been slow to privatize its state-owned assets and many companies are still owned by the sate or have major state shareholdings. He says his government has moved carefully towards privatization to avoid sudden and large job losses.
"Sometimes we are reproached by European politicians for not privatizing," the ambassador says. "But the government wants to ensure employment and uphold social guarantees. We have to be cautious. We don't have a lot of natural resources, except for Potassium, for which we have the largest deposits in Europe."
Landlocked and without significant oil or gas reserves, a major cost for Belarus is the important of oil and gas from Russia. "Our state budget depends on our exports. We have to import gas and oil. We pay market price for our oil from Russia; for gas we get a special price."
The country has an open border with Russia and the special relationship that comes from a shared history, but "our foreign policy is a multi-lateral policy," the ambassador says. We cannot depend on Russia. We are developing relations with the United States, the EU, Russia and the CIS."
The Commonwealth of Independent States, the loosely tied coalition of former Soviet republics, was a creation supported by Belarus.
"After independence we tried to sell our products, but it was hard for us," Ambassador Khvostov says. "We proposed the CIS and the agreement was signed in Belarus. It's a political instrument. Economically, the creation is weak. Economically, it is a better strategy to enter bilateral agreements with individual countries."
Asked about the prospect of Belarus one day joining the European Union, the ambassador is cautious.
"It's not yet our stated policy to join the EU," he says. "It's too early. We need some time to improve the situation. We have been proposed the status of Neighboring Country. The special relations that the status means will be helpful to Belarus."
"In this world we cannot be independent," the ambassador continues. "We have to be part of a big EU. This last enlargement was more political than economical and the EU will face problems adjusting these economies. It will take ten years. The EU will remain this size for the time being, and then the next invitation will be extended to Belarus, Russia and Ukraine."
But Belarus clearly recognizes the importance of repairing political damage and building political bridges to Western Europe and the United States.
"We need not only trade, but also a political involvement," he says. "We are a young democracy. We have some problems. We know that, and we are trying to discuss those problems openly."
"It's a question of perception. It's easy to find the negative."
H.E. Mikhail KHVOSTOV
Mikhail Khvostov was appointed as Ambassador of Belarus to the United States and to Mexico (non resident) on March 21, 2003. He arrived in Washington, D.C. on May 16, 2003 and presented his Letters of Credence to President of the United States George W. Bush on September 8, 2003.
Born: June 27, 1949, Vitebsk Region, Belarus.
Education: Minsk State Institute of Foreign Languages, Roman Linguistics; Belarusian State University, International Law.
Deputy Prime Minister - Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Assistant to the President of Belarus for Foreign Policy Issues
Ambassador of Belarus to Canada, Representative of Belarus to ICAO
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs
Director of the State Protocol Department, Director of Legal and Treaties Department
First Secretary, Embassy of Belarus, Washington, D.C.
First Secretary, Permanent Mission of Belarus to the United Nations, New York
Third, Second Secretary, Deputy Director of the Protocol and Consular Department
Before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Mikhail Khvostov occupied various positions at the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Current Member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague
English, French and Russian
Married to Galina Khvostova with a daughter and a son and three grandchildren