As a business person always open to new and attractive investment opportunities I was pleased to meet the Prime Minister of Belarus Mikhail Myasnikovich in Dubai and delighted to accept his invitation to visit Minsk, his country’s capital and major economic centre founded on a forested hillside at the confluence of two rivers. I had no preconceived ideas about this multi-ethnic landlocked city home to 1.8 billion, bordering Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – and few expectations. I feel privileged to have traversed the globe, north to south, east to west for business and leisure, but I’ve rarely been as impressed with anywhere as I was with Minsk.
The government of Belarus led by President Alexander Lukashenko, who first assumed office in 1994, is dedicated to bringing prosperity to the nation’s hard-working citizens with policies designed to attract foreign investment and tourism. His domestic privatisation program combined with an investor-friendly climate has attracted over 5,000 foreign investors from 77 countries, among them international household names such as Bosch, Coca-Cola, Hewlett Packard and Crowne Plaza. Moreover, Belarus has signed bi-lateral investment treaties with a number of Arab countries, including the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and Lebanon.
I am convinced that this emerging economy has a plenty of untapped potential. Belarus is destined to enjoy a prosperous future. The signs are there. During the first eight months of 2012, the country’s growth averaged 2.5 percent surpassing economic giants like Germany, Britain and France. In previous years, Belarus has held investment forums in London, Frankfurt and elsewhere. The 7th Investment Forum was held in Belarus from 15-19 November with 400 participants whose number included The World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the Financial Times.
The welcome both I and my companion on the trip - the UAE’s Ambassador to Belarus HE Mohammed Abdulla Mohammed Al Ghafli - received from the Prime Minister and his aides was heartwarming; they went out of their way to put us at ease and make us feel at home. The PM was kind enough to invite me to dinner at one of the Robinson Club’s restaurants with a terrace that overlooks a lake. I felt very relaxed in his company and didn’t want to stand on ceremony.
I told him, “I am not good at making speeches and I don’t know how to give compliments. I am a businessman and I understand business plans. So give me a good plan and I will consider it. Now, I’ve heard that the meat here is very good. Let’s skip the talking and taste your steaks.” Mr. Myasnikovich laughed. He liked my direct approach and we got along famously.
Belarus boasts vast swathes of farmland; it is agriculturally self-sufficient and doesn’t import vegetables or meat. Belarusians are hearty meat eaters and certainly my steak couldn’t have been more tender or delicious. I also had the pleasure of lunching with the Mayor of Minsk Nikolai Ladutkom and dialoguing with the Minister of Sports and Tourism Oleg Kachan and Sergei Teterin, the Deputy-Chairman of the Belarusian Tennis Federation and Vice-President of the Belarusian National Olympic Committee who showed me around some first-class sporting facilities.
If there’s one thing uppermost among my impressions of Belarus, it’s the friendliness and hospitality of its people. They have strong hearts, ready smiles and a stoic approach to life despite their nation’s turbulent past. This once important Polish-Lithuanian centre of culture during the 16th century and former Soviet Union republic was economically decimated during World War II when hundreds of thousands were murdered by Nazi invaders who scorched over 150 villages. Minsk took a battering; much of the city was turned into rubble. More than 80 per cent of its building and infrastructure was destroyed by successive German Luftwaffe bombing raids.
Looking at the city today, it is hard to believe that just 71 years ago it was consumed by flames that took days to quench. Rebuilt from scratch by the Soviets in the 1950s, it is an open museum for aficionados of Stalinist neo-classical architecture with massive state buildings, magnificent wide boulevards, grandiose squares and lavish public parks, peppered with dramatic monuments and statues. But unlike so many Soviet-constructed cities, Minsk isn’t stark or dour. Visitors enjoy its fun side taking advantages of the clubs, pubs, restaurants, shops and a four-storey underground mall hidden below Independence Square.
Since Belarus declared independence, the old town has been reconstructed along with crumbling houses and schools pre-dating the 1950s. In stark contrast are unusual towering contemporary architectural masterpieces and ancient cathedrals and churches, making Minsk diverse and regionally unique.
The city is clean, safe, green and easy to get around thanks to an efficient system of public transport; residents of Minsk are particularly proud of their rapid metro, first opened to the public in 1984. Minsk is beautiful by day, but in the night when the buildings, the lakes and the rivers are brightly illuminated with special effects lighting in a way I’ve never before seen during all my travels, it is nothing short of heavenly. The countryside around the capital is green and picturesque, making a peaceful contrast from the city’s bustle, as I noted when I was driven to Ratomka to tour the National Center for Equestrian Sport Training and Horse Breeding which was a real treat.
If there’s anything I regret about my four-day visit it’s the fact that I didn’t get to meet with President Lukashenko, a man with a plan who should be congratulated for guiding Belarus in the right direction. Also my stay was too brief; there is so much more to explore and discover. Never mind! As Arnold Schwarzenegger is fond of saying, “I’ll be back!”