The Korea News Plus recently had an interview with H.E. Andrei Popkov, Belarus Amb. to the Republic of Korea on the occasion of the 2021 Belarus Republic Day, which falls on July 3 this year. The following is the full text of the interview. _ ED.
Q: First of all, what is the significance of Belarus’s geographic location in terms of boosting market penetration for Korean investors into CIS & EU nations? What are its advantages in comparison with other neighboring countries?
A: Korean companies and institutions can effectively use our country as a gateway to the broad Eurasian market.
Belarus is a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Belarusian participation in this association provides a number of privileges for our economy and foreign trade. Belarus is located at the junction of the two largest integration projects on the continent.
It can become an effective bridge between the EAEU and European Union, which in the future will provide an additional synergistic effect from combining the economic potentials of the West and the East of Eurasia.
The successful implementation of the Eurasian economic integration stimulates foreign countries to cooperate with Belarus and the EAEU as a whole.
The EAEU has already concluded FTA with Vietnam, Singapore, and Serbia. Member States of the EAEU have started negotiations on FTA agreements with Israel, Egypt, China, Iran, India, Thailand, and Mongolia.
Currently, the EAEU is examining possible areas of deepening cooperation within the liberalized legal framework with more than 50 interested countries.
Belarus entered into the free trade pacts within the CIS framework as well as at the bilateral level. This gives additional possibilities for supplying goods and rendering services from its territory to the markets of many countries in the region.
Nowadays, in order to keep pace with the current world and regional economic trends, including the growing significance of innovations, IT technologies and liberal international trade, Belarus is gradually amending its industrial and economic policies.
The Belarusian government takes many steps to implement large-scale programs for improving business conditions, providing economic incentives, modernizing the national economy, and promoting innovations.
In this regard, at the beginning of this year, the government approved the Social and Economic Goals of the Republic of Belarus for 2021-2025. This strategy is quite similar to the Korean New Deal.
According to this program, during the next five-year period, Belarus is planning to advance innovative knowledge-based economy, which will be responsive to the needs of the fourth industrial revolution, with liberalization of foreign trade and domestic regulations of business activities, full use of potential of its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and other integration projects.
The country will continue working on creating stable, comfortable, competitive, and predictable conditions for investments and businesses based on the principles of equal competition, decriminalization of economic risks, ensuring the rights and protection of private property.
The emphasis will be placed on strengthening the confidence of the business community in the activities of state institutions, optimizing the regulatory environment.
Q: What is the level of ongoing cooperation during the pandemic between the two nations and its prospects for the upcoming years?
A: Many projects in the innovation sector, green economy, machine-building industry, biopharmaceutical, and other areas are on different stages of discussions between Belarusian and Korean companies and organizations.
As far as trade is concerned, Belarus has become the largest supplier of fertilizers to the Korean agricultural sector. We are advancing in the import of food products and hope that Belarusian milk and meat products will expand their range on the market soon.
At the same time, supplies of Korean composite and biopharmaceutical products, automobiles, tires to Belarus are steadily growing.
I believe we could approach the new phase of our relations when more strategic and result-oriented cooperation is possible in the framework of country-specific strategies of the Korean Government and regional integration organizations.
Q: Considering the mutual complementary economic structure, what are the promising trade and investment areas, prospects for industrial cooperation between Korea and Belarus?
A: 2022 will mark the 30th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties, which is a considerable period. During these years, Belarus and Korea have made substantial progress in various areas of cooperation.
The product range is diversified, and high value-added goods form the basis of our bilateral trade. Many Korean companies and their R&D divisions demonstrate a great interest in innovative technologies and solutions of Belarusian scientists and researchers.
We found niches to the supplement industry and economy of our countries through the supply of high-quality finished and semi-finished commodities. Belarus-made semiconductors, high-quality composites, non-woven materials, lasers, optics, linen fabrics, as well as tens of other commodity items are in demand by South Korean customers.
In total, our trade turnover consists of more than 300 types of goods, which makes it quite diversified.
South Korea is one of the global leaders in ICT and e-government, so the Belarusian stakeholders would strive to continue cooperation in these promising areas with the Korean counterparts.
On the other hand, Belarus is one of the global leaders in IT and software development. Our export of software exceeded $2 billion last year.
Infrastructure projects are also a point of interest for both countries.
A number of such projects are already being implemented in Belarus.
Unfortunately, investment cooperation between our countries wasn’t able to reach a preferred level; nevertheless, a number of Korean companies, especially in the ICT sector, express their utmost interest in establishing their presence in Belarus. One of the most successful examples is SK hynix.
The Republic of Korea is considered as a market with high purchasing capacity where quality Belarusian goods could be in high demand.
Belarus is good at basic and engineering sciences research and can show good results as an innovative and economic partner under the strategic policies initiated by the Korean government.
These policies create convenient circumstances for both Korean and Belarusian states to construct a robust mechanism of interaction.
We can also engage in exploring possibilities of economic and technological cooperation by connecting various integration organizations aimed at boosting partnerships in Europe and Asia.
Belarusian business and scientific communities would be interested in establishing win-win collaborative partnerships to increase their presence in the Asia Pacific region through strategic alliances with Korean partners.
From its own contribution, the Belarusian side can offer the starting up of partnerships between enterprises in the fields of electronics, microelectronics, production of industrial composites, automobile, machine tools building, automation and robotics, metallurgy, ICT, wood-processing, agricultural, pharmaceutical, and biotechnological areas.
Q: What is the governmental framework for bilateral cooperation?
A: In order to enforce good intentions of promoting the expansion of mutual cooperation, both countries have established an effective institutional basis for the regular holding of Joint Committees, Working Groups on Science and Technology as well as S&T Forums and technical councils between the leading scientific institutions and big Korean companies, research centers and foundations.
Many important projects in the areas of e-trade, cybersecurity, and e-government standardization were implemented within Belarus-Korea IT Cooperation Center in Minsk in 2017–2019. A number of MOUs were signed between the leading universities of Belarus and Korea. We hope to have more progress on this matter to launch new cooperation means at the bilateral level with interested public institutions.
Q: How do you assess the prospects of regional cooperation between both countries?
A: Belarus and Korea are both very interested in developing cooperation between regions and cities. Today the partner agreements are functioning between Minsk and Seoul, as well as Mogilev and Pocheon.
We are striving toward a much broader partnership network between other cities of Belarus and Korea as well since it is a good track to promote better understanding between people of both countries and enhance cultural, economic, and other types of cooperation.
Q: What is the current situation in the relationship with the key partners of Belarus? Which challenges does Belarus face today?
A: The situation around Belarus is a complex of interacting factors, including geopolitical ones.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that the general outcomes of last year’s presidential election campaign reaffirmed the firm desire of the large majority of Belarusian citizens for gradual social, political, and economic advancement in the country to enhance its sovereignty and ensure prosperity in the years ahead.
Belarus is always open to political and economic relations on the basis of equality, good will, and fairness. Our country traditionally implements a multi-vector foreign economic policy, maintains foreign trade contacts with most foreign countries, and actively participates in international integration processes.
Having aspired for well-balanced relations with most countries of the world, Belarus, at the same time, like any other nations, concentrates its foreign policy efforts on a number of the most important and promising vectors.
Among them are the neighboring states, first of all, the Russian Federation, which is the major trade partner of our country. Belarus takes an active and constructive position in expanding cooperation with the post-Soviet countries within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States.
An objectively important partner for Belarus is the European Union and other European countries at large, the basis of interaction with which is trade, economic, and investment cooperation.
Belarus has consistently advocated the normalization of dialogue and the development of ties with the United States and other leaders of the Western world.
To our regret, we are experiencing an unpleasant moment in relations with some of our neighbors in comparison with the previous years, when we were an active participant in many joint projects of cooperation and maintained trustful dialogue.
Still, we strive for a more objective evaluation of the current political situation in our country. Any pressure with regards to the economy of countries appears to be counter-productive and pushed way back in the development of international relations.
It is also potentially harmful to the citizens and their well-being. Nevertheless, we believe that a more balanced and pragmatic approach will eventually prevail soon in our relations with some states.
This current situation creates more opportunities for diversifying our economic ties, especially in the Asian region, as well as with the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union, which provides access to a huge market and wide range of resources.
Q: Please touch upon the strong points of the Belarus high-tech industry such as space development IT, AI, R&D, to name just a few, for benchmarking or collaboration with Korean partners.
A: Scientific and technological development has become a dominant priority for Belarus. My country is motivated to go on the path of an innovative economy and information society.
These strategic directions of development and increasing interest of business circles in establishing strong ties with Korean companies are decisive for our intent to extend bilateral interactions in scientific, technological, IT, educational, and investment domains.
Belarus is often called a Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe.
In fact, taking into consideration the export of software and computer services per capita, Belarus is substantially ahead of world-known leading IT clusters.
The first reason for this success story is high-qualified professionals: more than 65,000 IT engineers are working in the sector, and many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students are graduating each year.
Secondly, it is the mutual trust of business and government by creating upgraded regulations for the IT sector based on business recommendations.
As a result, almost 1,000 companies are carrying out their activities within High-Tech Park (Belarus) in software development, artificial intelligence, fintech, game industry.
Belarus is also famous for its aeronautical expertise. Our country has developed and launched its own space satellites. Belarus is also famous for its production of semiconductors for aerospace machinery.
We have developed our own production of electronic vehicles. For example, electric buses produced by one of our major automobile plants are a rather widespread means of transportation in Minsk and other cities of Belarus and are supplied to many countries of the world.
Our research institutions are also specializing in AI technologies for automobiles, agricultural machinery, and even mining truck.
Q: Please recommend tourism spots for Korean travelers to Belarus.
A: Belarus and Korea have a long history of cultural cooperation and exchange. Both countries are divided by the distance of roughly 7,000 kilometers, but bonds between the people of Belarus and Korea are gradually expanding.
Every year more and more tourists from Korea visit Belarus.
Two architectural sites in Belarus are featured in the UNESCO World Heritage List. They include the Mir Castle Complex and the Architectural, Residential and Cultural Complex of the Radziwill Family at Nesvizh.
Belarus is often called the land of lakes or “blue-eyed.” Its territory is covered in more than 20,800 rivers and 10,800 lakes, which are mostly scattered in the Northern and Southern regions and are replenished by spring water, which makes them crystal-clear.
Almost 40 percent of the territory of the country is covered in forests. The Belavezhskaya Puscha, one of the last relict forests of the European region and home to the largest population of bison, together with the Pripyat marches, are often regarded as “the green lungs of Europe.”
Coniferous forests, just like in Korea, are widely spread in Belarus. They provide high-quality timber, unique vitamin-rich raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry.
Belarus has developed its unique system of eco-trails, which run through various ancient forests, across rivers and lakes, as well as places of cultural significance.