Now let's move on to the details of the Forum of Regions, which was attended by Presidents Putin and Lukashenko. It is in this order that the names of the heads of state were presented at the plenary session. The organizers were probably guided either by alphabetical rules or by sporting traditions, as in football or hockey: the home team is announced first and then follow the guests. Certainly, the size of the countries and the number of regions were not taken into account! By the way, 43 Russian regions sent their representatives for the 3rd Forum of Regions. Yulia Beshanova has details from the Forum.
"Strong friendship will not break." The words of this children's song correspond to the relations in the union between Belarus and Russia. The 3rd Forum of Regions, like a mirror, reflected not only the general progress, but also the existing problems. The event brought together not only the heads of several ministries of the two countries, Deputy Prime Ministers, governors and businessmen. Presidents Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin took part in the event too.
The Russian plane was about an hour late, but this fact did not spoil the warm meeting between the two leaders. Communication of the heads of Belarus and Russia went beyond the protocol format.
The talks were held behind closed doors. The leaders discussed issues of bilateral cooperation touching upon the prospects of work to expand the cooperation between the countries within the Eurasian Economic Union. Particular emphasis was placed on measures to address the reduction of mutual trade turnover against the background of economic instability in the region and the world.
Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus:
Through our concerted efforts to overcome the consequences of economic instability in the world, the rate of decline of turnover has slowed significantly. While in January-April 2015, the mutual trade turnover fell by 30%, this year, during the same period, we only have a 12% decline. I very much hope that by working together we can find the reserves to consolidate this positive dynamism. The economic crisis must rally us, the participants of integration processes, and get us to develop cooperation, internal production chains.
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation:
Indeed, we recorded some losses in the past year. This year, the volumes are being restored, and one should note that Belarusian exports to Russia are increasing at a faster pace than Russian import to Belarus. In general, this is a normal thing. Moreover, the physical volumes are going up. This is a very good signal.
The conversation about probably the most important issue - gas price - remained behind the scenes. Belarus insists on lowering prices by almost 50%. Meanwhile, Gazprom expects to supply gas under old rates and says that the Belarusian consumers owe a large sum. Belarus Premier Andrei Kobyakov said talks on resolving the dispute on gas prices had not yet led to concrete agreements. He added, however, the sides would continue the dialogue.
This week, the Union State issues were talked over by representatives from all regions of Belarus and a record 43 regions of the Russian Federation. Minsk became one large interactive platform: the work was in full swing in nine thematic sections. The sides discussed educational and health programs, pension matters, tourism and cultural cooperation.
Sergey Rybakov, deputy chairman of the Committee for Science, Education and Culture of the Council of Federation of Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation:
The Belarusian delegation proposed to adopt a model code of culture for all CIS countries. As Chairman of the Commission I very much liked it and we are carefully studying this experience because we can apparently learn a lot from it. In addition, I express my gratitude to the Belarusian delegation for the fact that they came out with an initiative to sign the single convention on protection of cultural heritage in the framework of the CIS. This is also a great initiative. I must say that as a member of parliament, member of the Federation Council, I am very impressed that our Belarusian friends are so active in terms of legislation.
Vladimir Shugla, representative of the Russian Federation Public Chamber:
There are topics of conversation and we do have something to share. After our guys from Tyumen returned from Belarus, they told me that Belarusian universities have better technical equipment than the universities of Siberia. So today, seven high schools of the Tyumen region have signed cooperation agreements with seven universities in Belarus.
The focus of this Forum was on humanitarian cooperation. Common historical roots, culture and close cooperation at the present stage "glues" the two countries on the basis of legislation. Legislation in the fields of health, education and science should be harmonized in Belarus and Russia.
Mikhail Myasnikovich, Chairman of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus:
Today we heard good and bold proposals. It turned out that at the national and federal level, Belarus and the Russian Federation have all intergovernmental documents and all decisions seem to be in place. But it is necessary to ensure that a school cooperates with a school, a university with a university, so that they don't treat each other as foreign institutions. And then it will be much easier to deal with all other issues of socio-political nature.
Valentina Matviyenko, Chairwoman of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation:
It would be right if we came step by step to the creation of common visa space. There is no alternative to that. This will allow us to more actively develop the tourism industry in Belarus and Russia; it will allow us to offer joint tourism products, attract foreign guests and other partners into our country.
The highlight of the plenary session was the speech of each President. The heads of state discussed with the participants of the forum both integration and co-operation issues.
Citizens of our countries have equal rights in the area of payment, working conditions and safety, pensions; we have established a regulatory framework that provides free access to education. We made concrete steps to create a common space in health care, culture, sports, and tourism. We need to continue the convergence of framework in the social and humanitarian sphere. But it is necessary to take into account the high degree of economic integration.
Oil makes up more than half of Russia's import to Belarus. It is followed by machines and equipment, which are far behind.
Then go metals and chemical products. More than 30% of Belarus' export to Russia is food products. A quarter is agricultural equipment and tractors. Other top items are chemicals, metals and textiles.
The trade turnover between Russia and Belarus has dipped significantly over the last two years, but the partners are not to blame: mutual settlements are still in US dollars, and the national currencies of the two countries became much cheaper in 2015.
Nevertheless, in absolute terms, the figures did rise. Russia began to import four times more Belarusian livestock products, with exports of Belarus' nuts and fruits almost doubled. A rise in vegetable exports is about 66%.
Belarus is our important economic partner. It is ranked first in terms of turnover with Russia among the CIS countries. Belarus supplies half of all its export products to Russia, but there can be more if we take some steps to ensure our own interests, first of all those of farmers. Belarusian colleagues may supply even more to the Russian market. We must take advantage of the current situation, expand production, including for the needs of the Russian market. If today we fail to do it and continue to let sanctioned goods flow to the Russian market, then Belarusian producers will have it more difficult to work in that market.
Reciprocal capital flows are expanding. In January-March 2016, the volume of Russian investment in Belarus has exceeded $500 million.
Intense political day continued at the exhibition BelAgro 2016. It was located on the territory of the former airport Minsk-1. Taking part in the expo were about 500 companies. The area of the exhibition was nearly 30,000 m2. Therefore, the VIP visitors had to take a bus tour of the exhibition.
Following the exhibition, Belarus and Russia signed more than 20 inter-regional agreements and 150 commercial contracts for the provisional amount of $230 million.
Igor Kononchuk, director of a company (Belarus):
We have reached agreements with a few good partners. We have made specific deals and these are not one-off but long-term. It is evident that the Russian Federation is an interesting region for us, because this cooperation has lasted for decades, not merely years.
The Belarus Council of Ministers signed three agreements: with the Republic of Khakassia, the Perm Krai and the Tomsk region.
The Gomel region will have close ties with the Vladimir region and the Minsk region will start to cooperate with the Vologda region of Russia. Belarusian builders will help construct a subway in Chelyabinsk. The Sakhalin region in 2016 will start to buy Belarusian apples. This is not a complete list of the agreements.
Pavel Konkov, governor of the Ivanovo region of the Russian Federation:
Belarus has good achievements in the field of technology, crops, and livestock. About 60% of Ivanovo Oblast's tractor fleet is Belarus-made. We are interested in the servicing of these tractors and we are ready to discuss new supplies.
The 3rd Forum of Regions had concluded but the visitors were in no hurry to leave the capital. Just a few minutes before the departure, their flight was postponed for technical reasons. The plane had to wait for several hours but it seemed the Russian guests were not against staying on the hospitable Belarusian land a bit longer.