Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s speech for II Belarusian Business Forum in Warsaw

“Dear distinguished speakers, dear forum guests,

I would like to thank you all for coming to Belarusian Business Forum. 

Congratulations to the host and the organizers: Warsaw Stock Exchange and its CEO Doctor Marek Dietl, members of my economic team led by Aleś Alachnovič, think-tank CASE Belarus, and ABBA – Association of Belarusian Business Abroad. 

And I would like to thank you, Belarusian businessmen and businesswomen. Those who are present here and those who are currently busy running their businesses. Those who create goods and services, provide employment and make new investments amid enormous difficulties that you have faced over the last two years in Belarus and abroad. 

It is you, employers and employees of private business in Belarus, who contributed to our fight for the new democratic Belarus in 2020. The political crisis that followed the presidential elections affected many Belarusian private companies, as well as those self-employed. After August 2020 many businesspeople have suffered financial losses. Many have considered relocating their business abroad. Many have been forced to close and some have been imprisoned for not being silent about the repressions. 

Yet, prior to 2022, none of us knew that the worst was still ahead. On February 24th Lukashenka allowed Russia to use Belarusian territory to launch military attacks on Ukraine. Overnight in the eyes of almost the whole world Belarusians stopped being viewed as courageous peaceful fighters for democracy and became representatives of a country co-aggressor. Yet, we are still the same people who fought for freedom, but now we have to prove every day that the regime does not represent the people of Belarus. 

The Belarusian private sector was one of the first to pay the price for this act of co-aggression. New economic sanctions and international boycott made Belarus toxic for the global economy. Belarusian businesses lost their international customers, suppliers and partners. I understand that this is nothing compared to the sufferings and losses of Ukrainian people whom we support whole-heartedly and wish them a victory in this horrible war. However, as a leader, I need to be vocal about the problems of Belarusians both in the country and abroad, including Belarusian entrepreneurs. 

Over six months of 2022, almost six thousand small and medium enterprises disappeared in Belarus. Most of them left the country. Poland is the main destination country for Belarusian business, as it created favourable conditions for relocating businesses including visa facilitation, relocation support programmes like Poland Business Harbour. And I would like to thank the Polish Government and all international partners for your support for Belarusian private companies.

Belarusians are not only job takers, we are also job creators. Belarusians contribute to the foreign economies by paying taxes, investing, spending, innovating, as well as by social engagement. And if you help our entrepreneurs now, they will be able to grow and be ready to come back to Belarus or invest in Belarus and start building the new economy once the dictatorship topples. Even if they choose to stay abroad for personal reasons, they will remain ambassadors of Belarus.

It is critical to protect the Belarusian business community. Unfortunately, not all businesspeople who left the country were able to relocate their businesses. You can’t relocate a restaurant, a barber shop or a production facility. These entrepreneurs have to start everything from scratch in a new country.

I am happy to see that our business community in exile is uniting around ABBA and other business support initiatives. And I encourage our international partners to continue supporting these activities, so they can service the needs of Belarusian businesses and act as their collective voice. 

But we should and can do more. For instance, 

  • First, simplify the procedure of obtaining visas, residence permits, opening a company, and bank accounts for Belarusian businesspeople who don’t support the regime and war in Ukraine. Some businesses affiliated with the regime create new legal entities in the EU to avoid sanctions. Therefore, some EU countries and their institutions imposed restrictions on all Belarusian businesses. We should jointly work on finding a verification mechanism that would allow us to separate fair Belarusian businesses from those avoiding sanctions.
  • Second, establish a guarantee fund in the EU. It would allow Belarusian entrepreneurs without credit history in the EU receive business loans there. My economic team has already started working on that with the European Commission, Polish government, European Investment Bank, Polish Development Bank and other stakeholders.
  • And finally, I would like to encourage our international partners to fund new support programs for honest entrepreneurs among Belarusians that provide funding, training, access to work spaces, and navigating the administrative processes in the EU countries. 

And I ask you not to stop searching for new ways to support decent businessmen inside Belarus. They need help – to find new employees – perhaps among the political prisoners who were released, and their relatives. Fair businesses need help in finding legal ways to transfer funds from EU countries to Belarus and vice versa. They need help and advice on how to act when companies face political pressure. They need help in how to open legal entities in neighboring countries while staying in Belarus. Honest businesses, which support free Belarus and Ukraine, need help with unblocking frozen bank accounts, for example, in Ukraine. 

There are many requests and many ways to help.

So let’s start the discussion. I’m happy to see that so many key stakeholders will take part in this forum. It’s an excellent opportunity to come up with solutions on how this assistance to Belarusian businesspeople can be organized. I personally and my cabinet will do our best to ensure that the voices of Belarusian businesses are heard and the necessary assistance to them is provided.

I am very optimistic about the economic future of free Belarus. We have many very talented entrepreneurs who were able to build successful businesses in a very tough environment and despite all the obstacles that existed. We can only imagine how much we can achieve when favorable conditions for doing business are created in Belarus, and there is no more fear of losing everything.

We all know that a strong private sector is one of the main pillars of democracy. By helping Belarusian business today, Poland, Lithuania, and other European countries can contribute to the democratic and prosperous Belarus of tomorrow.

Thank you. And I wish you all very productive 2 days of discussions and informal meetings”.

19 September 2022 в 15:00