In March 2015, I visited Belarus twice: first, Minsk at the beginning of the month, then Gomel in the second half and then Minsk again. In between these visits I returned to London, where I met with a friend and his wife. They were visiting the British capital and thought we should catch up as we hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years.
We met up in a local coffee shop in Royal Victoria, with a nice view of Canary Wharf, the Emirates cable cars and the O2 Arena and started chatting. Of course, they asked me about my travels and I told them I was going back to Belarus in a few days’ time. They looked at one another and she said ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ ‘Of what?’ I replied. ‘I don’t know but, you know, it’s Belarus, right?’ she said without hesitation as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. I immediately took my phone out of my pocket and showed her my interview with the Deputy Minister of Economy including footage that showed the city of Minsk. The both of them were (positively) stunned.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been that odd except for the fact that they seem to be quite exposed to what is happening around the globe — he’s a cameraman working for a national TV station and she’s an actress. However, their shows what an average Westerner knows about Belarus; not to mention a business person who has no idea there are successful foreign firms doing business in the country.
Fortunately, the last two years have been quite good ones for Belarus, at least as far as awareness of the country is concerned. The country has been involved in the peace negotiations between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, since the beginning of last year. It has resumed its negotiations on its accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In February 2016, the European Union lifted most of the sanctions that had been imposed more than a decade ago, citing “improving EU-Belarus relations”.
Finally, having suffered the upshot of the recession in Russia, the government has realised the Belarusian economy needs new trade partners and foreign investors. It is actively trying to arouse the interest of companies from the European Union and the United States in doing business in and with the country.
As recently as last week, I participated in the EU-Belarus Forum organised by the Austrian Chambers of Commerce in collaboration with the European Commission. EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn spoke about the prospects and assistance that has been provided for EU companies that are interested in exploring business opportunities in Belarus. I had the pleasure of discussing the experiences of European firms that are already operating in the country.
During my numerous visits to Belarus, I have spoken to government officials, business associations and — what I believe is most crucial — businesses. Foreign companies such as Velcom, Stadler, Kapsch, Raiffeisen, Mace, Salamander, Kronospan and Pure Energy Intelligence assured me they were satisfied with the results of their investment. Additionally, my panellists from last week commented unanimously that they would invest in Belarus again.
Belarusian firms showed me their products and services and how high their quality was. I have talked to their highly skilled employees and I saw how hard-working and committed they are. I have also realised how difficult it is for them to break through to the West, mainly because of the lack of a positive image, which is utterly unfair.
At Emerging Europe we talk about the best that Central and Eastern Europe has to offer. We have spoken about Belarus since the beginning but we now believe it is time to devote more time and attention to the country. That is why we are about to launch a special report: the Emerging Europe Outlook on Belarus 2016, where we will analyse the business climate, economic situation and business opportunities in the country. In addition we’re also going to showcase excellent companies originating from Belarus that can easily compete on the European or even the global market.
Dialogue and debate, both offline and online, is what we do best. That is why we have invited global and international organisations, chambers of commerce, business and sectorial associations, foreign investors and local firms to join us in the discussion. Together we will paint a detailed picture of the economy, the country’s potential and opportunities as well as the challenges, obstacles and reforms that are necessary for Belarus’ growth.
We have: the World Bank; the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development; the European Commission; the International Monetary Fund; the Central European Initiative; Eurochambres; bilateral chambers of commerce e.g. in the UK, Belgium, Austria; the Council of British Chambers of Commerce in Europe (COBCOE); investment promotion agencies, not only in Belarus but also in Europe and beyond; embassies; the Association of European Business; foreign investors and local businesses and institutions such as Great Stone Industrial Park and the High-Tech Park.
Actually, the High-Tech Park has been gathering momentum for the past few years and currently employs over 22,000 ‘eggheads.’ Not all Belarusian IT companies are members of the Park which means the actual sector is even bigger. Bearing that in mind, we’re adding a special sub-section to the report that will be devoted to the IT industry. It will feature leading companies such as R-Style Lab, InToSoft, FORTÈGroup and SolbegSoft.
I recently read Belarus is the least visited country in Europe. Is that because it has nothing to offer? Of course not. Those foreign tourists who took part in the 2014 Hockey World Championship surely have great memories and recommend visiting the country to anyone they talk to. Even though Belarus is a landlocked country, it has plenty of historical sights and amazing nature, as well as the Zaslawskaye Reservoir or even the Minsk Sea, if you want. That is why we don’t want to miss any opportunities in the tourism industry and why we have invited key players in the sector, such as hotel chains and inbound tour operators.
I must admit that once I started discussing Belarus with my friends, it took us more than half of our meeting to change the topic. They were curious and inquisitive and decided they would go and explore the country on their own. I hope they already have. What is important, now, is to raise awareness and to educate European and North American business communities about the opportunities for growth that Belarus offers.
Bearing in mind the recent developments and the attention that has already been drawn to the country, the best time to talk about Belarus is now.