Czech envoy: They called me a 'spy' when I was renting skates for my son

Dagmar Didenko Novohradska arrived to work as the deputy head of mission at the Czech Embassy in Minsk in 2011. But on December 31, Czech Ambassador Irzy Karas finished his term in Belarus, so effective from January 2013 Ms Didenko Novohradska serves as the charge d'affaires of the Czech Republic in Belarus.

Euroradio: Did your appoinment to Belarus come as a surprise to you?

Dagmar Novohradska: No. Our foreign ministry makes appointments taking in account our personal choices as well. Belarus was a priority for me. Naturally, since our job is to maintain and boost relations between the peoples, it is obviously more difficult to work in a country where relations are bit frozen and where there are barriers. Clearly, it would be easier to work in another country, but every country has its own peculiarities. That's why I work here!

Euroradio: Are there many women among the foreign mission heads?

Dagmar Novohradska: No! There are more men, so I am pleased at least this way to contribute to some greater balance in this regard. Personally, I am convinced that women too can be good diplomats. The current French charge d'affaires in Minsk is a woman; EU envoy Maira Mora is a very professional diplomat, too. We do not normally segregate ambassadors by gender. It is professionalism that matters here. But it is true that the majority of EU diplomats in Belarus are men.

Czech Republic's charge d'affaires in Belarus Dagmar Novohradska

Euroradio: You speak Russian very well. Did you study it professionally? Do you plan to learn Belarusian?

Dagmar Novohradska: Czechs learn Russian at school; that's where I studied Russian, too. As for the Belarusian language, It is not difficult for us the Czechs. I would probably not dare speak Belarusian, but I understand everything. But in diplomatic circles we speak Russian, because some people do not know Belarusian completely or lack the vocabulary for a proper professional communication. It would be probably better to boost the use of Belarusian languauge by Belarusians themselves. Then, diplomats would try to learn more if they could hear more Belarusian languague spoken in the streets.

Euroradio: What are the difficilties for your work in Belarus?

Dagmar Novohradska: We all are aware of the difficulties in bilateral relations between our countries. There are barriers from the both sides. The barrier for us is that political prisoners exist in Belarus. In turn, Belarus does not like that the European Union applies sanctions against your country. It would be easier for our work if no such barriers existed. But we are trying to work hard. However, we also take into account our main demand to have no political prisoners in Belarus.

Euroradio: Have you got a feeling that the relations between Belarus and EU have warmed a bit in the recent months?

Dagmar Novohradska: Yes. I would say that they have warmed since Mr Makei became the foreign minister of Belarus, not just in the recent months. We are glad that after his appointment a working lunch of EU ambassadors and a US representative with the head of Belarusian foreign policy took place - something that had not happened for a long time before. We were also pleased to welcome deputy foreign minister Ms Kupchyna in Prague. At this level, we did feel the warming. But I must say that no significant changes have taken place, because political prisoners are still there. We will definitely be happy to have the ongoing open communication between our countries. But we will be even more happy if this takes us somewhere where there are concrete results…

Euroradio: This is not the first warming in EU-Belarus relations. Do you believe it will be preserved or even expanded?

Dagmar Novohradska: Diplomats work not just to hope but also to make things happen. I cannot tell you my predictions, but we work so that there are no barriers I was talking about earlier. But it will be difficult for us to restore relations at all levels as long as political prisoners remain in Belarus. We hope the time will come and we have many things ahead of us.

Euroradio: Poltical prisoners gradually finish their prison terms and get released. After some time, there will no political prisoners unless more of them will be recognized again. Will it be a signal for the European Union to restore cooperatiion with Minsk?

Dagmar Novohradska: It is not only about political prisoners. There are also other human rights-related issues. But, I believe, we should work on all aspects. Not everything works out overnight. It is just that political prisoners currently remain the key hurdle.

                              Dagmar Novohradska

Euroradio: The foreign ministers of EU member states are soon to decide again on the sanctions against Belarus. What is your personal attitude to those sanctions. Do they make sense? How should they be changed?

Dagmar Novohradska: As of today, we do not see how to lift these sanctions. We don't see any progress in the issue of political prisoners. I personally do not see how the EU Council of Ministers could lift the sanctions fully.

Euroradio: Lithuania will host the Eastern Partnership summit in late November. The 'Belarusian issue' seems somewhat sidelined at the background of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Is it worth expecting something significant for our country from this summit?

Dagmar Novohradska: As you have noted yourself, Ukraine is set to sign a free trade and political association agreement with EU. Moldova and Georgia are nearing this stage. Belarus has not even signed a cooperation agreement with EU that we could use in our bilateral relations. This puts Belarus into a difficult position. Hence, so little attention is currently paid to Belarus. We would like to see Belarus signing some agreements with EU, but this is not the case.

Euroradio: In your view, at what level should Belarus be represented at the Vilnius summit?

Dagmar Novohradska: We, the Czech Republic, would like Belarus to take part in this summit. It will be a joint decision by EU member states who could be invited to represent Belarus at this summit.

Euroradio: From the standpoint of an ordinary Belarusian, what does he or she loose due to Belarus' insignificant participation in the Eastern Partnership projects?

Dagmar Novohradska: Currently, the visa regime with Eastern Partnership countries is relaxed a bit, with a Schengen visa costing 35 euros. And even in Russia who is not a member of Eastern Partnership, the visa procedures are simple. But for the citizens of Belarus who do not represent a migration threat for EU, face a very stringent visa regime and 60 euros for a visa. We call on the Belarusian leadership to resume visa negotiations as it concerns all the Belarusian people! This is exactly what the European Union can offer Belarus and Belarusians, also in the framework of Eastern Partnership.

Euroradio: Officials at the Belarusian MFA explain their reluctance to negotiate by the fact that Belarus is cautious to sign the re-admission agreement as it is part of the package on simplyfing the visa regime. This way, Belarus will be overwhelmed by illegal migrants from the EU, they claim.

Dagmar Novohradska: Other partners have already signed those agreements to the benefit of their citizens. With Belarus, we are in the very beginning: we are talking about the need to resume negotiations on these issues. But, the opinion voiced by the Belarusian MFA is that as long as there are sanctions against Belarus, they are not ready to talk about it.

Euroradio: Can EU or the Czech Republic alone reduce visa costs for Belarusians unilateraly without waiting an answer from Minsk?

Dagmar Novohradska: The Czech Republic can solve this problem only in the framework of Visa Code. The Czech Republic has called on its partners in EU to use all possibilities of this Code and considered issuing visas to Belarus citizens free of charge. And this is what we do. Nearly 20 percent of all visas were issued free of charge. The Visa Code does not allow us to do more.

Euroradio: How many visas has the Czech embassy issued so far?

Dagmat Novohradska: Last year we issued 16,000 visas only because we have a small staff facing a huge demand. Only less than 1 percent of visa applications were rejected. We consider around 500 applications for long-term visas a year. This applies primarily to students of Czech universities. However, it is up to the Interior Ministry not the embassy to decide whethre a visa should be issued or not. As for multi-entry visas, our policy is very strict. The strict rules are stipulated by the Visa Code. We cannot issue visas (especially multiple visas) when the destination of applicant is other than the Czech Republic. We do not issue visas to those who will probably not travel  to our country.

Euroradio: Belarusian authorities are likely to make your life easier soon by introducing the $100 border exit tax. There will be less people applying for visas. What do you think about this intitiative by Aliaksander Lukashenka?

Dagmar Novohradska: We hope these measures will not be taken and that every Belarusian will be able to travel across the borders without any taxes or duties. Actually, talking about journeys, there is yet another problem: huges queues at the border. This problem should be solved. It is so heart-breaking to see, for instance, a family with small children who get stranded at the border for 8-9 hours. We suggest that infrastructure be improved at the Lithuanian and Polish border crossing posts, but so far... [it is not there yet]…

Euroradio: Belarusian authorities accuse the opposition and NGOs of receiving financial assistance from foreign embassies. What are your relations with the pro-democracy community?

Dagmar Novohradska: If someone proposes a project, regardless of the field, we try to support if the project is good and useful. For example, we work with children's centers, youth centers and try to organize workshops and seminars. There is no other funding available from us.

Dagmar Novohradska at an exibit in Viciebsk organized by the Czech embassy

Euroradio: All diplomats are suspected of espionage…

Dagmar Novohradska: There was only once case when I was suspected of being a spy. One day, I took my son to a skating ring. I wanted to rent the skates. So, when I showed my diplomatic ID, I heard the attendant saying to me: "Ah, those spies!" Otherwise, I do not see myself as a spy!!

Euroradio: Nevertheless, one of diplomat's main functions is to gather information in the country of work. What sources to you use?

Dogmar Novogradska: We collect information for the sake of our bilateral relations. We try to inform our government in such a way that eventually there are no barriers and that we could look for ways to work together - Czech Republic and Belarus. You have many open sources where one can find a lot of useful information for our work. There are countries in the world where no open sources are available.

Euroradio: Are Czech businesses interested in Belarus?

Dagmar Novohradska: Actually, a visit by our entrepreneurs is taking place in Belarus now. They spent one day in Mahilou and one day - in Minsk. Representatives of some 20 companies, banks and insurance firms came here with offers for modernization in Belarus. This proves there are many people in the Czech Republic that want to trade with Belarus. In fact, our country is in the Top 10 of Belarus' trade partners. The trade turnover reached $570 million in 2012. This year, the figure has already amounted to $300 million in the first six months. When trade relations develop, relations in other fields develop, too.

Euroradio: A few words about your private life. You said you live with your son in Minsk. What about your husband?

Dagmar Novohradska: My husband works at the EU delegation to Armenia. He works in one Eastern Partnership country, and I work in the other Eastern Partnership country. We are separated by diplomatic work, but we have many topics that can be discussed - Eastern Partnership, for instance!

Euroradio: Do you shop in Minsk? Where do you buy clothes?

Dagmar Novohradska: Frankly, i don't have much time for shopping here. I do all my shopping when for holidays in the Czech Republic!

Euroradio: What hobby do you have?

Dagmar Novohradska: My hobby is a healthy lifestyle. I do yoga.

Euroradio: Do you go to the theater, cinema? What music do you and your son like to listen to?

Dagmar Novohradska: My son fell in love in Krambambulya. We have not missed this band's concert in Dudutki. I don't have time to go to the cinema. I am missing the contemporary American and European cinema. By the way, we are the organizers of a film festival. Together with Slovakia, we organized the Czech and Slovak Film Festival early this year. During the festival I even went to the cinema in Mahilou, Hrodna, Brest and Viciebsk. But I was there rather professionally, on the job. I also visit museums sometimes. We organize exhibitions ourselves as well.

    Dagmar Novohradska with her son Alexander

Euroradio: A beer festival would come more naturally from the Czechs!

Dagmar Novohradska: We are preparing. Even when we took our entrepreneurs to Mahilou, people asked us to open a Czech brewery there. There is one in Brest. We will try to organize a beer festival. But it has to be organized outdoors, so we need to wait for a warmer weather. I hope Euroradio will be our media partner for this event.