Latvia is interested in bolstering good neighborly relations with Belarus. Scheduled for 16 January, the forthcoming visit of Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins to Minsk is designed to take bilateral cooperation to new heights. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Latvia to Belarus Einars Semanis granted an interview to BelTA to talk about the matters the negotiations will focus on, including preparations for a visit of Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko to Riga, oil deliveries to Belarus via Latvian ports, and the organization of an ice hockey world championship in 2021.
What is the purpose of the Latvian head of government's visit to Belarus?
Latvia promotes tight and good neighborly relations with Belarus. Good neighborhood relations go beyond good relations. They encompass such qualities as mutual trust and mutual understanding of many matters. Belarus and Latvia enjoy excellent relations in many spheres: politics, economy, transport, and transit.
The main purpose of the forthcoming visit of the prime minister is to bolster good neighborly relations. The Latvian side is interested in seeing Belarus as an independent and stable country with good living standards.
When we talk about good neighborly relations, we refer to many different aspects. Those are primarily political and diplomatic relations, which develop very vigorously. Here are a few examples of previous visits to Belarus: Belarus welcomed the Latvian head of government in 2018, the ministers of foreign affairs, economy, transport, and the chief of the Armed Forces of Latvia in 2019.
The 14th session of the Belarus-Latvia intergovernmental commission on economic, scientific, and technical cooperation took place in Minsk in early October. A broad range of matters of importance for both sides was discussed.
Good interaction has been established between the parliaments. The chairperson of the Latvian parliament's subcommission on security and domestic affairs took part in events of the Minsk Dialogue forum. We take pride in rich interregional cooperation. For instance, Vitebsk Oblast and Latgale maintain long-standing and deep relations of friendship and cooperation.
The Latvian side has invited Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko to come to Riga on a visit. Will the matter be on agenda of the forthcoming talks?
To discuss details of Aleksandr Lukashenko's visit to Latvia is one of the most important goals of the Latvian head of government's visit to Minsk. While in Belarus Krisjanis Karins is expected to meet not only with the Belarusian head of government but also with the Belarusian head of state. From the political point of view the Belarus president's visit to Latvia in 2020 represents a very prominent event in the Belarusian-Latvian dialogue.
I am convinced that the visit of Aleksandr Lukashenko represents not only a token of good neighborhood and good relations between the two countries but also a very significant indicator of development and deeper relations between Belarus and the European Union.
More than that, it will be a token, a good symbol of the dialogue between Belarus and NATO since Latvia is also a NATO member. In these troubled times this dialogue is very important for promoting mutual trust-building measures.
What other matters will the Latvian prime minister discuss in Minsk?
No doubt, matters of economic cooperation will be in the center of attention. We are neighbors. We are connected by geography and history. Our economies are very mutually connected. Contacts in the spheres of transit, logistics, and transport will be thoroughly discussed during the visit.
According to Latvian statistics, Belarus-Latvia trade reached €476 million in nine months of 2019. To compare, in 2018 Belarus-Latvia total trade amounted to €576 million. Apart from that, 585 enterprises with Latvian capital operate in Belarus while 874 enterprises with Belarusian capital operate in Latvia.
These figures testify to the strong interest of the sides in mutual cooperation.
Are the sides going to discuss oil transit via Latvia to Belarus?
Oil transit will be discussed together with matters relating to logistics and transit. On the whole, it is an area where we don't have to start some projects because the transit of oil products has been going for a long time. Stable traditions and good ties have developed in this field.
The matter of so-called reverse oil deliveries or alternative oil deliveries is not new. The matter surfaced in Belarus-Latvia relations in December 2019 or January 2020. It is a matter we discuss constantly to a degree. On 3 January the Latvian Transport Ministry confirmed it is always ready to get involved if projects for alternative oil deliveries are available. As for oil products, there is a well-polished scheme for Belarusian-Latvian cooperation with good results. It is a traditional area where the two countries cooperate effectively.
In 2019 the export of oil products by rail to Belarus via Latvian ports amounted to 3.7 million tonnes. It demonstrates that the industry develops steadily and handles large volumes. Latvia's key ports such as Ventspils and Riga are mainly in use. A bit of Liepaja is used. The necessary technical capabilities and port harbor depths are available there.
Latvian Railways is an important player in this avenue of cooperation. Good contacts have been established between the Belarusian and Latvian railways. The head of the Latvian railways met with Belarusian colleagues in Minsk in December 2019 and prospects of advancing ties were discussed.
Tight contacts between the Belarusian and Latvian railways have existed for a long time. The presence of the representative office of Latvian Railways in Minsk testifies to that. By the way, a representative office of AirBaltic also works in the Belarusian capital city.
Transportation between Belarus and Latvia is solid…
As many as 65,000 passengers used services of the air carriers AirBaltic and Belavia last year, 49% up from 2018. The two companies performed 1,267 flights, 35% up. Transportation from Belarus to Latvia by rail demonstrates good figures, too – 5.3 million tonnes. A huge transport and transit corridor operates and handles lots of people and freight.
Belarus and Latvia will co-host the 2021 IIHF World Championship. Although we still have more than a year to go, the event is likely to be mentioned during the forthcoming negotiations…
A world championship is a great responsibility and a great honor. Some part of the visit will be dedicated to a meeting of representatives of the Belarusian and Latvian committees in charge of organizing the ice hockey world championship.
Thus, we can see several goals the visit is supposed to achieve: secure stronger and continued good neighborhood, advance the political dialogue at the top level, make preparations for the Belarus president's visit to Latvia, and discuss vital economic matters and the organization of the ice hockey world championship.
What joint projects are the most significant ones in your opinion?
Among the top projects I can mention the organization of container transportation by rail, in particular, the container express trains Riga-Minsk-Riga and Zubr. Transportation between Kiev, Minsk, and Riga can become a new serious project in this area.
The flagship of the Latvian pharmaceutical industry – OlainFarm Company – has brought a considerable amount of investments to the Belarusian market. In the area of healthcare I would like to mention Grindeks Company's project for supplying medications from Latvia to Belarus and the introduction of cancer screening procedures with assistance of Latvian specialists in accordance with European Union recommendations.
A good practice has been established for exporting timber products via Latvia with assistance of the Belarusian Universal Commodity Exchange.
The modernization of infrastructure at Belarusian-Latvian border checkpoints with assistance of the European Union is also important. I am talking about the Silene-Urbany checkpoint and the Paternieki-Grigorovshchina checkpoint.
Good cultural projects and tourism develop well. One can feel the historical and cultural affinity of the two nations, their spiritual ties. The organization of Latvian events in Belarus, including annual Latvian Culture Days in Vitebsk, is a vivid manifestation of that.
How many Belarusian citizens received Schengen zone visas from Latvian consulates last year?
Belarusian citizens received nearly 58,000 Schengen visas, including 32,500 in Minsk and 25,000 in the consulate general of Latvia in Vitebsk. Roughly 70% of the trips are related to visits to friends and relatives, which once again testifies to the close ties between the two nations.
I think the number of Belarusians visiting Latvia among other places will rise due to the signing of the Belarus-EU facilitation agreement. The Latvian side welcomes the signing of this document. We also look forward to the signing of Belarus-EU partnership priorities.
Will the visa issuance procedures be further simplified for fans during the 2021 IIHF World Championship?
I can say the process will become faster and even more streamlined. A special procedure for visiting the ice hockey world championship is supposed to be in place. The matter will be discussed by the Belarusian and Latvian prime ministers. They will discuss in detail matters relating to traffic and border crossing procedures during sport events.
Both countries have extensive experience of organizing such events. I admire the excellent organization of international forums in Belarus.