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

Source: minsk.diplo.deIn 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”

Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei at the Minsk Forum. Source:

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

German Foreign Minister Gabriel meeting Belarusian president Lukashenka in Minsk. Source: Thomas Imo/Photothek.Net

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, 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.

Should Germany Be Blamed for Cooperation with Belarus 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.