The End of Pretence: Minsk Forum 2011 Cancelled

Andrei Sannikov (now imprisoned) at Minsk Forum-2010

This year for the first time since its kick-off in 1997, there will be no Minsk Forum conference. The international conference, bringing together representatives of Belarusian and international political and economic organisations once a year in Minsk, has been the biggest international conference of its kind for many years.

Having started on a small scale 14 years ago, the conference has grown and has been a significant fixed point for everybody working with Belarus. Every year in late autumn, state and non-state actors involved with Belarus would meet in Minsk to discuss projects, take part in panels and network.

For several years, it has been a mirror of the changing relations between the EU and its neighbours. In recent years, the Head of the Presidential Administration of Belarus, Vladimir Makej, was the keynote speaker of the conference. Last year, the German and Polish Ministers of foreign affairs even came to Minsk and met with Aliaksandr Lukashenka right before the Minsk Forum. This was symbolic for the Minsk Forum: it aimed to serve as a platform for dialogue between state and non-state actors and to bring together those who would rarely meet in Belarus under the current circumstances.

The fact that the German-Belarusian Society and its partners have now decided not to organise a Minsk Forum this year shows that EU-Belarus relations are at an all-time low this year. In the past, German political foundations served as sponsors of the forum. After the events of the 2010 presidential elections, political repressions and broken political relations between the EU and Belarus on a high-scale level, coming together in Minsk for the conference is no longer an option.

“Organising a conference which will involve the meeting of politicians from Germany and other EU countries with their counterparts from Belarus is not possible at the given point of time”, the President of the German-Belarusian Society, Prof. Rainer Lindner, states in the press release.

According to the organisation, dialogue will only be possible after all political prisoners in Belarus have been released. However, the partners of Minsk Forum committed to do their best to keep up the partnership with Belarusian civil society. Cancellation of the conference this year shows that the time of pretence is over. A clear message had been sent – not by the EU or the German government itself - but by those organising the conference, those who drive German-Belarusian relations. It is no longer possible -- and there is no longer a wish -- to overlook the violations of human rights in Belarus for the sake of taking a common picture with Uladzimir Makej, the chief of Lukashenka's administration, and Roland Pofalla the Chief of Staff of the German Chancellery, as it has been the case during the last years.

While it is of course regrettable that the conference is not going to take place this year because of the political situation, it could also be seen as a chance for those involved in its organisation. In recent years, although the number of participants was still growing, a sense of saturation could be felt among the participants.

A shift towards economic topics and a growing number of economic representatives tended to prevent the conference from being what it was so highly valued for: a forum for those who want to move things in Belarus, who have a chance to meet once a year and come up with projects, discuss in a free atmosphere and to be heard by those people they would not reach under normal circumstances.

Hopefully, the German and the Belarusian side will take one year to think about how cooperation could look in the future and to adjust their priorities.

NL

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