German FM visits Minsk: the limits of awkward rapprochement with Belarus
On 17 November 2017, German Foreign Minister Siegmar Gabriel has visited Minsk to take part in the Minsk Forum – an unofficial dialogue platform between Belarus, Germany and the EU, running since 1997. Gabriel also met with his Belarusian counterpart Uladzimir Makei and the president Lukashenka.
The first official working visit of a German Foreign Minister since 1995 was possible due to the recent thaw in relations to the EU. Within the last two years, Belarusian authorities freed political prisoners and have been cultivating their peace-building role in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, seeking pragmatic cooperation.
Acknowledging these efforts, German government so far has been supporting the new rapprochement, despite lacking democratic reforms and respect for human rights in Belarus.
The uneven cycles of Belarusian-German relations
In 2017, Belarus and Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The modern history of bilateral relations contains its highs and lows. Within the last decade alone, they went a full circle from one thaw in 2008 – 2010 to another one starting in 2015.
Belarusian relations with the EU and Germany deteriorated quickly after the crackdown against the opposition and civil society following the presidential elections 2010. Political and economic dialogue resumed only five years later when the Belarusian authorities released the last remaining political prisoners.
The official Minsk has also been diligently working on improving its international reputation by assuming a neutral position in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Signalling its goodwill, it positioned itself as a regional peacekeeper, facilitating negotiations which led to the Minsk Agreement 2015.
In February 2016, the EU lifted sanctions against Belarus and its president and later even invited him to the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels in 2017. Gabriel’s visit took place in the atmosphere of this cautious rapprochement.
Minsk Forum XV: “Belarus, Germany and EU: Eastern Partnership, Civil Society and Economic Relations”
Starting from a small civil society initiative back in 1997, the Minsk Forum grew into a unique platform for dialogue between Belarus, Germany, and the EU. Currently, its main organiser is the German-Belarusian Society (dbg e.V.), acting in cooperation with several German and Belarusian NGOs and with the support of the German Foreign Office.
After a 5-year long break, the Minsk Forum resumed in November 2016, signalling new rapprochement between Belarus and the EU. Leading official Belarusian newspaper Belarus Segodnia described this year’s 15th Minsk Forum as a “recognised indicator” of Belarusian-European relations. Taking place a week before the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels, the Forum highlighted the major themes in the relationship to the EU.
The Forum focused on German-Belarusian relations and cooperation within the Eastern Partnership. Central themes touched upon political and economic reforms in Belarus, regional cooperation issues, chances of the Belarusian membership at the WTO, visa facilitation process, and the possibilities of cooperation between state and non-state actors in Belarus.
In 2017, both German and Belarusian Foreign Ministers appeared as keynote speakers at the Forum for the first time in its history. The chair of Minsk Forum Rainer Lindner highlighted this fact as a sign of progress in political dialogue and a “strong signal” for diplomatic, political and economic rapprochement. Noting Belarusian peacekeeping efforts in the region, Lindner also mentioned the release of political prisoners as well as the recent summit of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly 2017 in Minsk and the Belarusian presidency of the Central European Initiative 2017 as signs of an opening towards Europe.
German media on the Minsk Forum
Reporting on the Minsk Forum and Gabriel’s visit, Belarusian official media commented on “qualitatively new level” of bilateral relations, referring to the Minsk Forum as a “soft power” tool in policy-making. Belarusian support of peace-building and stability in the region was another recurring theme.
German media were more cautious in their evaluations of Gabriel’s visit to Belarus than their Belarusian colleagues. Noting the unchanged authoritarian character of Belarusian regime, Deutschlandfunk.de pointed out the omission of controversial issues during Gabriel’s meeting with Belarusian leadership. Deutsche Welle shared the reservations about the new rapprochement, noting a lack of trust towards Belarus.
Democratic governance, human rights and the rule of law still remain problematic areas in Belarusian relations with Germany. Yet it is not likely that Belarusian authorities would revise their approaches to these specific areas, as it would endanger the regime’s stability.
Rather, instead of liberalisation, Belarusian regime has recently introduced some “innovations” into its repressive mechanisms. The newest trend is the use of small-scale targeted repressions, to avoid media attention in the West. Aiming to test the EU patience for repressions, this approach also indicates the underlying unwillingness to reform governance.
German media also note that Belarusian and German interests are overlapping. The EU approaches Belarus as it does not see any willingness for dialogue from Russia. It might have an economic leverage, as Belarus is actively seeking to expand economic cooperation opportunities and is looking for investment partners in the West as well as in the East.
During the meeting, Makei stressed strategic and military partnership to Russia, yet noted the need of “constructive and pragmatic” relations with the EU. Germany, in turn, promises that Belarus would not have to make a choice between the EU and Russia. Gabriel spoke about the possibility for Belarus to become “a sort of a bridge between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union.”
At a glance, it appears that both sides are on the same page, yet future progress remains unclear since Belarus ignores the need to respect human rights and refuses to abandon repressive methods against the opposition, journalists, and civil society. Simulated liberalisation allowed Belarus to get a foot in the door leading towards rapprochement with the EU, but this process is easy to stall, as long as Belarusian government modifies repressive mechanisms instead of abandoning them.
Censorship of music: who gets to sing in Belarus?
On 2 November, Belarusian bard musician Zmicer Vajciuškievič had a 25th-anniversary concert in Minsk. Before that, he had been unable to perform in Belarus in public for many years. Along with some other musicians, he became a part of the blacklist of “politically inappropriate musicians.”
While the particular reasons for banning a musical show in Belarus change from event to event, the possibility of concerts taking place unchangeably depends on the authorities.
The official motivation of concerts’ cancellation often refers to extremism, the “low quality of lyrics,” or logistical obstacles such as overlaps with other events. Although excuses vary, there exists a clear pattern: Belarusian authorities attempt to restrain musicians for social and political reasons.
While Belarusian musicians face strong censorship, many pop-stars refusing to admit Belarusian national identity and statehood continue to perform in Belarus. Despite a few positive changes, so far authorisation for public musical performances and shows in Belarus remain a field controlled by the regime.
Black-listed-musicians: who and why?
Already in 2000s, the authorities had restricted public performance rights for several famous Belarusian musicians. Liavon Volski who demonstrated clear opposition to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka and his regime became one of them in 2004. Such artists as Siarhei Mikhalok and Zmicer Vajciuškievič have faced bans and restrictions on performing on Belarusian stages. An unofficial black-list of Belarusian musicians has recently included more artists such as Vinsent and the band Dzieciuki.
In most cases, musicians face obstacles in form of last-minute cancellations and shows being called off for unclear reasons. For example, the band Dzeciuki had been trying do a gig in Minsk for 2016. At first, the club refused to host the concert. Next, the ideological department of the Executive Committee in Minsk asked to send them the lyrics of the songs. The Executive Committee then issued a statement for an official cancellation of the band’s concert. They had concluded the band’s lyrics were of “low quality,” and thus the band was not given permission to perform.
This happens to Belarusian musicians directly or indirectly opposing to the regime. It is especially topical for rock musicians, because rock music in Belarus often translates protest of society against the state. Rock artists, such as Siarhei Mikhalok, who is famous as the frontman for bands Liapis Trubeckoj and Brutto, live and perform abroad.
Indeed, Siarhei Mikhalok faced a pressure after insulting Lukashenka in an interview to 1tvnet, an online news portal. Mikhalok said Lukashenka “initiated a genocide against the Belarusian people” and that Lukashenka ”hates the Belarusian people.” After the interview, Mikhalok had to leave the country for several years.
Only in 2016 was Mikhalok able to return to Belarus, performing in Homiel and then in Minsk. However, until now his second band, Brutto, meets constant restrictions on songs and places to perform.
Although the reasons and explanations by authorities for banning musicians vary, the scenario of blacklisting looks the same. The local authorities cancel concerts at the last minute. It happened with Belarusian singer Vinsent when authorities banned his concert at Minsk-Arena in 2016. In September 2017, the leader of the band Dzieciuki faced being blacklisted when he tried to receive a permission to perform in Minsk with his solo project.
After expressing a political or social position that opposes preferences of the officials, musicians can become blacklisted. Vital Hurkou, the world famous sportsmen from Belarus, lost financial support from the Ministry of Sports for a collaboration with Brutto. In 2014, the band Amaroka was refused the right to perform after authorities deemed the songs to be extremist. TuzinFM, a Belarusian video-driven music website, believes the authorities at present have blacklisted four musicians.
Doubtful pop-stars in Belarus
While officials aim to prevent anti-regime singers from performing, they pay little attention to the people denying Belarusian nationhood and statehood who come to sing from abroad. Recently, Viktor Kalina, who supported separatists in Ukraine and posed with weapons on occupied territories in Ukraine, had a tour in Belarus. Ukrainian authorities have already put Kalina on a list of people dangerous for national security, because of his close ties with the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Despite this, Kalina received permission from the Belarusian authorities to perform.
Indeed, his concerts in the Belarus often receive support of the local authorities, who help to distribute tickets in towns like Vitsebsk and Brest.
Civil society activists have protested Kalina’s concerts. In October, Vitsebsk and Brest activists sent an appeal to the authorities demanding cancellation of Kalina’s November performances in the largest Belarusian towns. This prompted Kalina to write a letter to President Lukashenka with a request to protect him from Belarusian nationalists.
Civil activists’ efforts are not always in vain. Two years ago, local authorities positively reacted to a letter from activists and banned one of Kalina’s concerts. However, most recently authorities appear reluctant to forbid Kalina from touring. After a concert in Hrodna on 4 November, the singer posted on VKontakte, a Russian-language version of the social networking site Facebook, saying that his concert was successful despite the “animals” who tried to cancel it, reports Belarusian Partisan.
In addition to musicians, Belarusian authorities rarely prevent visits of pro-Russian artists, who believe in the idea that all the Russian-speaking territories should belong to Russia. On 25 November 2016, Russian propagandist Vladimir Soloviev, who became famous for his open pro-Putin and imperialistic views, came to Minsk to give a book reading. Despite protests and appeals of Belarusians, he managed to perform in Minsk. So far, it seems pro-Russian imperialism looks less dangerous to the authorities than music critical of the Belarusian government.
Why Belarusian authorities censor music?
The logic behind the motivations of Belarusian authorities to ban concerts remains hard to understand. In October, authorities forbid Russian rapper FACE to perform in Belarus. After submitting song lyrics to the Executive Committee, authorities refused to allow his concert.
FACE’s songs contain much swearing, stories about drug abuse, and stimatisation of certain groups of people. A month before his slated performance, Belarusian musician Dzianisau, who based his songs on Belarusian poems written by Ales Chobat (a member of the Belarusian Writers Union), also received refusal to perform in Minsk for allegedly writing “low quality lyrics.” While Belarusian musicians of varying success fight for their rights of freedom of expression, Belarusian society attempts to confront imperialist adepts like Viktor Kalina.
During the last years, Belarusian musicians with the help of the public have been gradually receiving more freedom of expression without censorship. Consistently, the most difficult time for musicians to perform are the pre-election months during the presidential campaigns, for example in 2010 and 2015. It also seems that the authorities see less threat in musicians during the middle of the electoral cycle. Fewer musicians tend to be blacklisted, and officials allow more concerts and put less censorship on Belarusian musicians.
However, the authorities hold an administrative resource in their hands with which they can get rid of “politically inappropriate” musicians wherever they want. It becomes especially topical on the eve of elections when the regime demonstrates its power. It appears that music in Belarus is not so much the sphere of culture and business, but more the sphere of ideology and politics.