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.