On the relations between Finland and Belarus

Christer Michelsson,
Ambassador of Finland to Lithuania and Belarus

Belarus, which gained independence as the result of the break-up of the Soviet Union, is young as an independent country. Its territory, or parts of it, has been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. After the First World War there was an independent Belarusian People’s Republic for a very short period, but very soon it was incorporated into what was to become the Soviet Union. Belarus suffered greatly during the Second World War, when the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was fought intensively there. Likewise, the Holocaust took its toll also in Belarus. During the Soviet period, Belarus belonged to the most developed parts of the Soviet Union. Belarus is also the country, which probably suffered the most from the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986.

Finland established diplomatic relations with Belarus in February 1992. The bilateral political relations are stable and pragmatic. A small but still upward trend can be detected. In the beginning, the Ambassadors resided in Vilnius. In 2010, Finland established a Liaison Office in Minsk, led by a Minister-Counsellor. Until May 2019, the office was co-located with the Embassy of Sweden, but now it has its own premises. – Belarus opened its Embassy in Helsinki in 2012.

Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto visited Minsk in November 2019 together with his Swedish colleague, before him Minister of Foreign Trade Kai Mykkänen visited Minsk in 2017. From Belarus there have also been Ministerial visits to Finland. Consultations between Foreign Ministries take place yearly.

On the other side of the relations, the human rights situation, especially the use of capital punishment still in 2019 in Belarus – as the only European country – has to be mentioned. In EU contacts, as well as bilaterally, the issue of abolishment or at least a moratorium on the use of the death penalty  is always raised.

Bilateral trade is still rather modest – in 2018, the trade turnover was 120 million euros, with focus on machinery and steel products. Every second year an Economic Forum, outside the capitals and with company attendance, is organized. There are two business associations, which work to enhance the trade relations. Regular fact-finding trips to the regions are undertaken.

About 25 companies from Finland are present in Belarus. Areas of cooperation with good potential include cleantech and the forest sector (pulp industry as well as forestry management). Membership of Belarus in the World Trade Organisation would certainly increase the possibilities for cooperation.

As Finland is member of the European Union, bilateral relations are not the whole story. A sizable part of the political relations is handled through the EU, with Finland participating in the formation of the EU position.

Belarus is one of the six Eastern partner countries. It does not aim at EU-membership, but is interested in closer political and economic cooperation in a wide range of sectors. Belarus is also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). These memberships do not exclude close cooperation with the EU and its member states.

With the EU negotiations on Partnership Priorities are ongoing. Finland hopes that they soon would be brought to a successful end, as it would make bilateral financial support from the EU to Belarus possible.

The relations provide, however, also now possibilities for beneficial cooperation. A first twinning project with participation from Finland has been launched. (Strengthening the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Belarus). Bilaterally smaller scale projects have been implemented, for instance on female entrepreneurship and other gender equality projects.

As the Northern Dimension policy of the European Union is important for Finland, it is very positive that Belarus participates in some of the programmes. In the Environmental Partnership there is potential in eight projects already agreed upon (in the fields of drinking water and energy efficiency). Also the Transport and Logistics Partnership offers possibilities. – In the Council of the Baltic Sea States Belarus is an observer.

People-to-people contacts have been on a steady rise. Cultural contacts, as well as sports tournaments are the reasons. There are several direct flights between Helsinki and Minsk per week. The partial lifting of visa requirements of the Belarusian government boosts tourism.

Finland welcomes the soon to be finalized new visa facilitation agreement between the EU and Belarus – it will make travelling easier for Belarusian citizens and thus increase contacts.

The first Ambassador of Belarus who resided in Finland has written a book with a telling name (in translation) “Just one flight-hour away”. For a long time Belarus has been a white spot on the mental map of many Finns. Easier travel can change that, which would be in the interest of both countries.

Expert article 2617

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