Excellency, how would describe your diplomatic tour as well as your personal experience in South Africa?
I was surprised to be appointed to South Africa, having previously only worked in the European region. Interestingly, I was here exactly 20 years ago, as a young diplomat accompanying our parliamentary delegation to South Africa. I remember sitting at the airport thinking that it would possibly be the only trip here in my life, that I might never come back to this country again, or to this region. But, by good fortune, exactly 20 years later I am now here as the ambassador of my country to South Africa, and also as ambassador to four other countries in the region, namely, Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Having been here a year and a half already, I can say that we have great potential in our bilateral relations. I have been doing my best to develop these relations to achieve something tangible for my country, for South Africa, but also for the other countries I am accredited to.
What is the current status of bilateral relations between your country and South Africa?
In 2018, we celebrated 25 years of diplomatic relations between our two countries.
We officially opened an embassy here in 2000, and our relations continue to develop, both in the political sphere and also in the economic sphere. It is very important to me as ambassador to establish these relations with the countries I am assigned to, in order to find potential spheres of cooperation, in order to develop our export possibilities, investment possibilities, as well as to attract South African investment in my country. It works both ways for the mutual benefit of both countries.
What new agreements of cooperation do you predict to attain between Belarus and South Africa?
We have a developed legislative base with South Africa, so possibly the most important sphere of cooperation which is under consideration right now is the visa-free regime, which shall be provided by South Africa to Belarus. This was announced by your president last year. Such a visa-free regime will help develop businesses, business relations, and develop our tourist exchanges both to South Africa and from South Africa to Belarus.
With regard to investment, please highlight some notable business opportunities that already exist, or that are currently emerging?
Belarus is a very export-orientated country. If you look back through our history, during Soviet-Union times Belarus was a hub for the production of heavy-duty dump-trucks, agricultural trucks, machinery for chemical products, oil refineries, and so on. After the collapse of the Soviet Union we managed to preserve all these industrial potentials, and we have developed into a supplier of a very wide range of industrial and agricultural goods, which we export to the rest of the world.
We are a small country with less than 10 million people, so we export about 60% of our GDP – heavy duty dump trucks to South Africa, for instance. These trucks are produced by BelAZ (Belarus Automobile Plant), who possess about 30% of the world market of heavy-duty dump trucks (along with Catapillar and Kamatso). We also export other machinery used by the mining sector to South Africa, so this is the primary focus of our bilateral relations. Along with these products, we are also very good at making tractors, and other agricultural machinery.
We would like to move beyond only selling products. We are currently in negotiation with several South African partners to establish a local assembly line of our agricultural tractors, and possibly our road trucks as well, as joint ventures with South African partners.
For South Africans wishing to engage in trade with Belarus, where should they start? Is there a Chamber of Commerce or Trade Office at your embassy or any other business platform that one may contact?
Yes, we have the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is an umbrella organization for all Belarusian state enterprises and private companies. This is a very active and powerful organization.
In comparison to South Africa, where there are many different chambers of commerce, we have one umbrella structure. In each region, we have an office of the chamber of commerce that works with the main office in Minsk. Our chamber of commerce has already established relations with several chambers of commerce in South Africa, for instance, with the Johannesburg Chamber Of Commerce. They have worked together for several years, and we have plans to receive South African businesses in Belarus next year. We have some very practical plans to facilitate these business exchanges and business relations.
How does Belarus promote its culture through tourism to international travellers?
We have done quite a lot in this regard in the last 10 years. We have a visa-free regime which is applicable to 80 countries right now, so when tourists or businesses come to the country for periods of less than 30 days, they do not need a visa. This helps a lot.
There are many tourist sites in Belarus, including natural reserves and forests, similar to what you have here but also very different. You have the Big 5; we obviously have very different types of animals. For example, the only countries in Europe that have European Bisons out in nature are Belarus and Poland – there are no Bisons living out in nature anywhere else.
We also have a very rich heritage. There are a lot of castles in Belarus, several of which are included in the World Heritage list. We have ecotourism, which is popular among tourists, as well as a lot of natural sites where people can see animals or birds in nature.