Should Germany Be Blamed for Cooperation with Belarus Police?

Germany equipped Belarusian police

Scandalous news hit many media outlets this week in Germany: German police have been training their Belarusian counterparts for years. 

This raised many eyebrows because of the serious human rights violations perpetrated by Belarusian security services. In addition, the German media confuse words by calling the Belarusian security services "militia", which has a very negative connotation in German. 

The question remains whether Germany has trained Belarusian riot police units or ordinary policemen. Material support and on-site training for the Belarusian security services demonstrates that Germany as well as other EU member states are lacking a consistent approach towards Belarus.

It is time to define clear guidelines when dealing with non-democratic states such as Belarus. It should be out of the question for Germany to support Belarusian state organs that are involved in violent crack-downs of peaceful demonstrations. Apart from ethical objections to this support, it contradicts the policy of supporting the Belarusian opposition struggling for survival in Belarus. 

It is now known that between 2008 and 2011, the German police trained around 500 policemen, border guards and other members of the security forces. Moreover, the German government equipped the Belarusian security forces with computers, uniforms and technical equipment.  In total the equipment was worth around €200m.  After the election day crackdown in December 2010, cooperation stopped.

The German press and many opposition politicians declare that supporting a dictatorial regime is unacceptable.The German Ministry of Internal Affairs claims that the training started during the period of opening in Belarus. At that time the Belarusian authorities had signalled readiness to take steps towards ensuring rule of law in the country.

Training for policemen is part of Germany's international cooperation programme. This also includes cooperation with non-democratic or transitional states. One example of the cooperation is the training of Afghan police officers. However, the training of Belarusian police men touches problematic points.

Police Trained On-Site in Germany

First, the training consisted not only of seminars but also involved on-site training. Several hundred Belarusian policemen were present during the passing of castor transport. Whenever nuclear waste is transported through Germany anti-nuclear activists stage protest along the railway.

This is one of the few times when the German police clash with activists. During the operation at which the Belarusian forces were present, around 500 protesters were injured by the police. This hardly gives a good example to Belarusian policemen. Without doubt, the aim of this mission was that they should learn how to proceed in a non-violent and deescalating way during rallies and demonstrations.

Moreover, the German policemen are nicknamed “friends and helpers” and Germans highly respect the institution. Whenever clashes between police and protesters happen - as was the case during the castor transport operations - there is an outcry in the country.

Because of their history, Germans are very careful about using military units for operations inside the country. The deployment of Bundeswehr during demonstrations or even football matches is still much discussed in the parliament. Therefore the cooperation between German police and the forces of a non-democratic regime may seem very problematic.

Did Germany Send Bats to Equip Belarusian Riot Police?

German newspaper articles are not precise in their reporting, which adds to the chorus of outrage. The German Spiegel keeps writing that there was cooperation with the “feared Belarusian militia”, using the German word miliz. Belarusian “miliz”, however, is ordinary police, while the feared forces are the riot police. the  “Spez Nas”. It is not clear from the articles whether the cooperation took place between militia or special forces. However, German police cooperating with something called “militia” would lead to disapproval among Germans in any case.

Several newspapers claimed that the German government had supplied bats to the Belarusian militia. While the German government immediately rejected this, it shows that the German newspapers are heating up the discussion.

While cooperation between Belarusian state forces such as border guards and German institutions is acceptable for the Belarusian and the German opposition politicians, the support of riot police is not. The question is therefore whether the government really supported the riot police. In any case, supporting the Belarusian opposition through German political foundations and equipping the forces that crush them down at the same time will indeed raise questions.

Most likely, Germany started this training as part of a European Union programme. EU countries train and equip border guards at the EU’s external border in the interest of all EU member states. It is highly improbable that the German government decided to support the Belarusian regime in place and to enforce its capability to crush demonstrations as several articles in German press imply.

Cooperation Started During the 2008 Opening of Belarus

Only in 2012 did everybody in Germany start to notice that the opening of the regime in 2008 was not a true one.  Back then, nobody looked beyond the pretence of rapprochement by the Belarusian authorities. The German government was more than relieved to believe in opening while it was always clear to that Lukashenka had no intention of changing his policy towards democracy.

Here again it seems that the German government- along with all other EU members states- was only too happy to believe in reform. They were quick to send the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, to Minsk. A more cautious approach to a formal rapprochement and low level cooperation could have proven more sensible.

Those people working with Belarus on a regular basis know that it is crucial for any project to bring state and non-state actors together. In Belarus, state and non-state actors live in two parallel worlds with very little interaction. It is easy to organise seminars for non-state actors and opposition politicians. However, their impact is very low and they have no power whatsoever to change things in the country. Serious change can take place when state actors start seeing democratic ideas more favourably. 

However, it is usually difficult to involve state employees - journalists, policemen, professors, politicians - to take part in training organised by Western countries. It is remarkable that the German government managed to involve so many Belarusian policemen in the seminars in the first place.

The government should realise that the debate about the police training constitutes a chance to review its policy on Belarus.

It is of course important not to stop cooperation with Belarus altogether. A completely isolated country at the Eastern border of the EU would be worse than a country that cooperates with EU institutions. It should however be clear that material support and transfer of knowledge can only be provided when they are not used against the democratic forces in the country.

The German decision makers may not be sure which security force is merely doing police work and which are the riot police beating peaceful protesters and former presidential candidates. But there are people and organisations in Belarus and in Germany who can provide them with such information.

Nadine Lashuk is a German political scientist, currently working on the first German-Belarusian binational PhD thesis.

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