Geert Visser, Consul General of Belarus chose the Hilton Houston Post Oak as the right place for our interview. Located in the Galleria, this hotel hosts most of the Houston consulates’ national days and meetings due to its prominent location and the number of Consular offices in the vicinity. The Hilton staff generously offered us the Towers Lounge which has been used by the executives we have seen over the years. Formerly the Honorary Consul of the Netherlands and now serving as the Consul of Belarus, Geert Visser has been a consul for so long that his service stands as the longest running term for consuls in the Houston area. Consul Visser began our interview speaking on Belarus. Afterwards, he realized he hadn’t mentioned any of his own accomplishments. I began there. In 1978, he came from Scotland after being stationed in London, West Africa, and Aberdeen. He was the president of the Global Marine Transport, the main contractor for the Exon- Valdez clean-up in Alaska. He would ship from Alaska to shipyards in San Diego. Do you recall the Trans-Oceanic disaster in the Gulf of Mexico? He delivered equipment from Europe to the clean-up in the Gulf of Mexico.
Q: To begin, tell us about how you began as a consul representing Belarus and some of your back ground.
A: For ten years I was the career consul of the Netherlands, from 2003- 2013. We had a large staff working in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. My own business took a backseat to that, and I resigned. I then was contacted by the Charge d’Affairs in Washington to see if I would be interested in working in Texas. I understood Belarus was looking for a consul, and I contacted the embassy to see if I could have a meeting with the Charge d’Affairs in Washington. We set up a meeting for half an hour that ended up being 3.5 hrs. So, we had good chemistry. I was approved by the government of Belarus though not by the State Department yet, and it was a long process. The State Department stepped in at the end to accredit the nomination. No one has taken such a long time, from what I was told, to be accredited by the State Dept. It normally takes 3 to 4 to 6 months to approve, though not in my case. I got a lot of help from the Houston OFM office during this.
Q: Tell us about the Belarus Consulate in Houston, what parts of America are covered and what are the services it provides?
A: We are currently based in the Woodlands. We were based on Richmond Avenue in downtown Houston. This new government office was well-received by the government of the Woodlands. This is the first diplomatic mission for the Woodlands. It’s a beautiful office with arts and pictures from the Belarus region. I represent Texas., Louisiana., Arkansas., and Oklahoma. We do mostly trade here and supply Belarusians with advice. We help with situations such as a lady in Austin recently who lost her way and passport. Also, we assist in situations where it may be expired. We used to do it at the Dutch consulate; though not anymore. Passports are sent by mail from the embassy in Washington.
Q: What are some past, present, & future goals for Belarus’ relationship with the U.S., and please tell us your perspective on ways that U.S. -Belarus goals may be furthered?
A: More people are speaking English each time I go over there. The trade aspect is important. For Americans interested in doing business in Belarus, there is a focus on expos and conventions to establish more trade relations since the trade sanctions were lifted. In fact, I received an email today concerning a trade show in December where Belarusians exhibit their goods here in Houston at the George R. Brown. Foreigners travel to Belarus into Minsk by airplane with no VISA requirements for 5 days. Belarus would have to come to those companies and vice versa to further those relationships and see how everything is developing. Connecting Arkansas to sell products in a way for the people of Belarus to export their goods to large corporations was a recent example of this. A large corporation in Arkansas is the Walmart Corporation headquarters and they asked me for example; “When is Walmart coming to Belarus?” Dignitaries were invited to see the demonstrations hosted by the World Affairs Council in that area, and we were given the keys to the city. The factories are very modern in Belarus like the vodka kind. I don’t drink vodka though it is of high quality. it is clean and one of the best in the world from what I’ve seen. They have very nice for trade: confectionery sweets, linen, machinery like tractors, potatoes, investments and are known for the potash also. The largest trading partnering country is Russia, the second largest, Germany; then Poland is there, the Ukraine, and Baltic Island countries The Netherlands is a reasonable trading partner for Belarus. Slowly more people are learning it and wanting to do business with Belarus. There’s a high-class system over there where offices are clean, people are nice though language is a problem. It is very disciplined like Germany. The banking system is a good banking system. If you transfer money there then you don’t have to worry about someone taking 10% of the business. Belarus has been known for their agriculture for some time now, though it is changing with modern advances. The system right now brings prosperity to Belarus.
Q: That brings me to the big picture issues. What are some of those facing Belarus today?
A: I believe it is the misconception. It is difficult because the question is always: ‘Where is Belarus?’ It is located between Russia and Poland. The Belarusian people are as independent as possible. Belarus is a very safe and organized country. People are dressed well, and you do not see homeless in the streets. If you travel form the airport to Minsk, then you will see how good the roads are. One-third of the population was killed by the Nazis. Every little town or village has a memorial for that time. It suffered a lot during the war being where the crossroads are between Poland, Germany, and Russia. Slowly but surely the USSR state of mind is being changed, it seems, by the younger generations. Joint ventures with corporations like high-tech industries, and heavy machinery are getting done. High-tech called the Great Stone is partly owned by Chinese’s and Belarus governments. It is a new platform for high-tech export-oriented and innovative manufacturing, as well as a key logistics and transport hub on the fastest growing trade corridor in the world, running overland from Asia to Europe. The industrial park is the core of a deal between the Belarusian government and China, which has been building a new Silk Road from Asia to Europe, what it calls the One Belt, One Road project. Some $200 million has already been invested on the first phase of Great Stone, including $80 million on the basic infrastructure that is completed, according to Koroteev and BNE IntelliNews. The president is very involved with technology innovations to make Belarus on the up curve for technological advances like the electrical cars. Belarus is becoming the new Switzerland of the East for the reason of its geographic location and the country’s stability. It is a safe and organized country without crime and corruption. I was in Belarus 3 weeks ago speaking of safety with foreign countries. The people from other countries are well-treated as we cannot afford ill-treatment to foreigners. If that was done to just one then it would go down like a snowball from there so each is treated well. The system is doing good. The President is doing a good job of keeping it in the middle as far as more like East or West, and I’ve spoken to the Belarusians that say they like it.
Tourism is an old and large industry influenced by the Earl of Lithuania. After Belarus was taken by Poland, Russia, then Germany. Now the markets are doing well. There is a 2- minute movie called ‘1 Day in Balarus’ where you can see how developed the train stations are. Ice hockey (which is the largest/most popular sport), castles, lakes, are all very beautiful and affordable to do and live near. Minsk is the capital and most visited for its gardens, parks and fountains. Independence Square and Independence Avenue are not to be missed. Slonim is interesting to visit for their synagogue, St. Andrew’s church, “the bottomless lake” surrounded by numerous legends, Puslovskis Earls’ Manor and the train station of Slonim deserve your attention. Even the closest neighbors know very little about Belarus. And, people from farther countries are often interested in where it is, and whether Belarus is a country at all. Here are the 6 regions of Belarus: Minsk, Vitebsk, Grodno, Gomel, Mogilev and Brest oblast. They are also the largest cities in Belarus. Here, we describe the Facts that everyone should know: In Belarus, people do not speak Belarusian. The country has 2 official languages, Belarusian and Russian, the first one is only studied on a separate subject at school, while all the other classes, as well as official documentation are conducted in Russian. However, closer to the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, the language is changing, where people talk in “trasyanka” (a mixture of Belarusian and Russian) and other language mixes. Did you know that two Israeli presidents were born in Belarus, Shaim Weizmann and Shimon Peres? The second was president from 2007 to 2014. Svetlana Aleksievich, Nobel prize for literature winner from Belarus. Moreover, there are as many as 5 Nobel Laureates in Belarus. In 2015, Svetlana Aleksievich received the Nobel Prize for Literature. You can read more about the famous people of Belarus where you’ll see some you recognize from the United States too! There is very little advertising on the streets, but a lot of social advertising. You can go to the cinema for $1-2 dollar. The first thing that tourists say when visiting Belarus is that it is green, clean, safe, and comparing to Russia and Ukraine, it has excellent roads. The territory of Belarus is 40% forests, which symbolizes the green strip in the Belarusian flag. The largest and oldest forest of Europe with the largest animal population in Europe is situated in Belarus. We are talking here about the Bialowieza Forest on the border with Poland, and the animal is European Bison. European Bisons. Bulbaland. Belarusians are very fond of potatoes; most national dishes include this most important for the locals’ ingredient. In Belarus, there are more than 300 dishes from potatoes (“bulba”). The largest dump truck in the world is produced in Belarus. BelAZ-75710 weighs 360 tons, the height of its wheels is 4 meters, and if someone wants to buy such a car, it will cost you about $10 million!Belaz, Largest dump truck in the world. If you look closely there is much to see and do in this landlocked country that counts Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and the Ukraine as neighbors. As over 40% of the country is forest, expect lush vegetation and picturesque countryside, as well as an abundance of local wildlife including rare European bison. You can take a trip back in time at the numerous forts and castles in Belarus, as well as keeping up with the more modern side of things in the buzzing capital city of Minsk. Wherever you go in Belarus, you will be delighted to see a mixture of old and new!