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Opinions & Interviews

1 Feb 2019

Belarus, Pakistan on their way to hit $1bn in bilateral trade

Belarus and Pakistan are 5,000 kilometers away from each other. They have different traditions, culture, religion, and political system. Nevertheless, the two countries have been maintaining friendly relations for 25 years already and this friendship has borne fruit. In an interview with BelTA, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Pakistan Andrei Yermolovich takes stock of the bilateral cooperation over this period.  

On 3 February Belarus and Pakistan will mark 25 years of diplomatic relations. Mr Yermolovich, what is the biggest achievement of the bilateral cooperation and how are the bilateral relations developing now, from your perspective?

We set the stage for full-fledged bilateral cooperation across all areas of mutual interest, and I see this as our major achievement. I mean the legal framework that now encompasses over 80 agreements, well-established institutional cooperation mechanisms in the form of commissions and working groups, a system of interregional contacts, groundwork for interparliamentary diplomacy and humanitarian cooperation.

In other words, we have advanced the bilateral relations to a mature stage and we can build further on our success. The further actions will depend on how the current situation evolves and what points of growth we will be able to find.

Last year Belarus-Pakistan trade amounted to about $65 million. It is a far cry from the $1 billion target the parties pledged to achieve by 2020. Why do you think the two countries are still so far from this goal?

First of all, the $1 billion challenge is primarily a testimony to the determination of the heads of state to dramatically intensify cooperation in economy and trade and reach a specific result within a certain timeframe.

It is important to understand that there is a real possibility for the two countries to make a breakthrough and advance the economic cooperation to a brand new level.

Second, one should keep in mind the context in which this goal was declared and the current state of affairs. During the talks between Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and the then Premier of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad in October 2016, the parties assumed that Belarus and Pakistan had everything in place to dramatically increase the bilateral trade given the existing approaches to bilateral cooperation and the successful implementation of the projects developed in 2015-2016. It was the reason why this goal was set and why this plan was declared.

We remember what a tremendous impetus it gave to the business communities of the two countries. After all, in late 2016 and throughout 2017 our bilateral relations had never seen so many events happening since 1994. Parliamentary diplomacy intensified: within three months the heads of supreme legislative and representative bodies of Belarus and Pakistan exchanged visits. Business forums were arranged to forge new partnerships in agriculture and the textile industry. The joint commission for trade and economic cooperation took up new tasks. The $1 billion challenge was to be formalized by signing a declaration on strategic avenues of economic cooperation between the Republic of Belarus and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

This groundbreaking document was supposed to be signed by the heads of state in Minsk in August 2017 as Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif would return his visit to Belarus. However, a week before that, the Pakistani leader was forced to step down because of some developments in the country. In this extraordinary situation, when an interim government was appointed and Pakistan was gearing up for parliamentary elections, key international arrangements, including the $1 billion challenge, were downgraded on the list of priorities.

On the other hand, we strongly believe that the change of government cannot be used as an excuse for the failure to make the most of our cooperation opportunities.

In recent months Belarus has taken several tactical measures to restart the bilateral relations, establish business contacts with the new government that came to power in August 2018, and take concrete action on the $1 billion challenge to give this idea another shot.

What sectors have the biggest potential for building up trade and economic cooperation?

Taking into account the structure of the economies of Belarus and Pakistan, we can outline several areas.

First, it is the sale of traditional products such as agricultural, mining and construction equipment, instrument-making goods and agricultural products, chemical and pharmaceutical goods to Pakistan and agricultural products (rice, vegetables, fruit, and nuts) and textiles to Belarus.

Second, it is the establishment of joint ventures to produce Belarusian machinery (tractors, trucks, passenger buses, loaders and many more) in Pakistan, and also joint ventures to make surgical instruments, leather and sport goods in Belarus.

Third, it is the establishment of a joint cluster to produce in-demand medications. The cluster can be set up either in Belarus or Pakistan. Pakistan produces affordable high-quality medicines. Cooperation in the industry requires particular attention of the joint group on healthcare and pharmaceutics. The group is set to convene for their first meeting soon.

Fourth, it is the use of Pakistani capital in Belarus’ textile industry upgrade projects. Pakistan has long-standing textile traditions and is willing to share technology and investment. We view this factor as extremely important for economic relations with Pakistan.

Fifth, it is the joint production of agricultural products: meat, milk, ice cream, yogurt, baby food, and so on. These issues are regularly considered by the working group on cooperation in agriculture, and the parties have been gradually moving towards concrete results.

Sixth, these are joint projects in science with direct access to the production cycle. The relevant bilateral commission is in full operation. The State Science and Technology Committee has announced a competition for joint projects. Applications are open through 3 March 2019. Proposals concerning materials science and engineering, nanotechnology, medicine and pharmacy, renewable energy, information and communication technologies, standardization, industrial chemistry and mineral exploration, functional nutrition and food safety will be carefully studied.

Seventh, it is a project to set up a university of applied technology in Pakistan and to reach a qualitatively new level of joint vocational training of Pakistani specialists using Belarusian educational technologies. This is a mutually beneficial project. Belarus has everything necessary to implement its approaches, tested in many countries, and Pakistan represents a huge market for us in this regard. Specialists can receive training and get Belarusian certificates and diplomas without leaving Pakistan.

These are the main areas of work. We have not mentioned a few others that have been in development for the past years. After agreeing on them we will get quite tangible and long-term results.

Summarizing the abovementioned, it is important that Belarusian enterprises, ministries and concerns understand the following: in order to achieve concrete results in Pakistan, one needs to be present in this country on a regular basis.
Amidst tough competition in the world, the chances of success will be small if you do not keep abreast of the developments, do not compare the competitive advantages of products, do not provide after-sales service, do not commit yourself to the customer and the market. Believe me, this is a conclusion based on real life, and here is the key to the $1 billion goal in mutual trade.

In December last year Minsk welcomed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee of the Armed Forces of Pakistan Zubair Mahmood Hayat. He held talks with the head of state, senior officials, visited a number of Belarusian enterprises. What agreements were reached during his visit?

Since Pakistan declared its independence, the army has always played a key role in the country’s politics, economy, and social processes. We therefore attach great importance to the development of effective contacts with the Pakistani army.

Under the patronage of the army the country is implementing major infrastructure projects that are extremely interesting for our road construction and mining equipment producers. Such giants as Fauji Foundation, Frontier Works Organization, Pakistan Charity Army organization, the National Logistics Cell are the economic pillars of the Pakistani army. We can and should develop system-based relations with them in order to meet the target mentioned above, namely to increase mutual trade.

During a meeting with General Zubair Mahmood Hayat the Belarusian president stressed that the army in Pakistan is larger than the army. We kept it in mind as we negotiated our agreements during the recent visit.

During the meeting Alexander Lukashenko extended an invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to visit Belarus. Are any top-level visits scheduled for 2019?

Regardless of the political situation in Pakistan or the political party in power, our task is to ensure the continuous development of bilateral relations across the whole range of issues of mutual interest, for the benefit of citizens of Belarus and Pakistan. It is an axiom that we will stick to in our relations with this friendly South Asian country.

The new government that came to power in Pakistan last year announced ambitious plans for the further social and economic transformation of the country and significant improvements in the well-being of people. All this is reflected in the Pakistani government concept, known as the New Pakistan.

Belarus welcomes Islamabad's aspirations to achieve the prosperity of the country and suggests joining efforts focusing on trade and investment, with active involvement of business of Belarus and Pakistan in the economic cooperation. It was this motif that was behind the decision to invite Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to pay an official visit to Belarus.

We believe that in the light of the new circumstances the restart of bilateral relations launched in 2018 will be organically continued by this visit at the highest level. During the visit the parties will be able to compare notes and lay the foundation for new projects. These projects are currently under discussion. We are also working on the agenda of the negotiations and a solid package of documents to be signed during the visit.

In March Islamabad will host the sixth meeting of the joint commission for trade and economic cooperation, which will set the stage for the highest-level visit. Then we plan to hold the fourth round of ministerial consultations. The foreign ministers and parliament speakers of the two countries might also exchange visits.

You have been heading Belarus’ diplomatic mission in Pakistan for more than four and a half years. What are the peculiarities of working in this country and has anything changed in the bilateral cooperation after the new government came to power?

In general, working in Pakistan is like working in any other country in the South Asia region. Pakistan is a country with a population of 207 million, a nuclear state with deep historical and religious roots, self-respecting, aiming for peaceful coexistence with its neighbors, economic development and prosperity.

As I have already mentioned the constant presence is the key to success of our producers in the Pakistani market. We need to be in the public eye all the time, to advertise the advantages of our products as compared to similar foreign manufacturers. Thus we will be able to establish system-based manufacturing and sales, and win the trust of customers.

The current leaders of Pakistan, like the former ones, are pursuing noble goals to raise the standard of living. It goes without saying that Pakistan cannot reach these goals without mutually beneficial relations with foreign partners especially if they are as open and sincere with Pakistan as Belarus. Our interests fully coincide here.

Do Belarusian tourists visit Pakistan often, or is it still not on their radar? What does the statistics show?

Unfortunately, the statistics does not demonstrate massive flows of Belarusian tourists to Pakistan. It is indeed a new and interesting destination which would introduce Belarusian tourists to the unique nature, culture and historical heritage, cuisine, and wonderful people of Pakistan.

In this respect, Belarus is open to any offers from Pakistan to develop cooperation in tourism and is ready to consider various ways to boost such cooperation. Within the framework of the New Pakistan concept, the government of the country has busied itself with raising the security level to attract tourists from all over the world to Pakistan. The government is considering easing visa requirements with over 55 countries.

We, too, work with Pakistan in this area. We have launched negotiations to conclude an interdepartmental memorandum of cooperation in tourism. This will help establish ties between travel operators and work out mechanisms of tourist exchange.

During the hottest summer months, Pakistan citizens could enjoy cool air at Belarusian health resorts which are situated in picturesque places on the banks of rivers and lakes, visit tourist sites, sports facilities including winter sports facilities, and admire the beauty of our country firsthand.

Pakistan, in turn, could attract Belarusians with its mountain landscapes, ancient cultural traditions, mystical Sufi songs and dances which go back to ancient times, and a spicy cuisine.

For Pakistani and Belarusians to discover each other’s countries, the parties will have to work hard. The issues related to cooperation in tourism may be on the agenda of the March session of the joint commission for trade and economic cooperation.

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