German-Belarusian relations were initially promising following the country’s independence in 1991 and the establishment of diplomatic relations in March 1992. Until the mid-1990s, there was a lively exchange of visitors, including numerous ministers from both countries. However, relations with the European Union countries – including Germany – deteriorated increasingly owing to domestic developments in Belarus after President Lukashenko took office in 1994. These eventually led to the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council’s decision of 15 September 1997 to restrict political relations with Belarus. Since then, the German Bundestag and the German Government have repeatedly called on Belarus to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The German Government sharply criticised the manipulation and lack of transparency of the presidential elections of 19 December 2010, as well as the regime’s violent crackdown on protesters and civil society and the politically motivated sentencing of more than 30 people to, in some cases, lengthy prison terms. These measures constitute a setback, not only for the democratisation process in Belarus and efforts to move the country closer to the EU but also for bilateral relations between Belarus and Germany.
Following the release of the last political prisoners on 22 August 2015 and the non-violent and non-repressive nature of the presidential elections on 11 October 2015, the parliamentary elections on 11 September 2016 (regardless of the ODIHR election observation mission’s legitimate criticism of the preparation and conduct of the elections) and most recently the local elections on 18 February 2018, there are new prospects for political and economic dialogue between Germany and Belarus. In addition, Minsk deserves credit for the part it has played in international efforts to reach a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis.
Foreign Minister Steinmeier hosted a visit to Berlin by his Belarusian counterpart Makei on 18 November 2015. The Minsk Forum, which since its establishment in 1997 has become the largest German-language platform for dialogue between Germany, the EU and Belarus, was held again in Minsk – for the first time after a five-year break – in November 2016. 13 March 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of renewed diplomatic relations. On that day, a touring exhibition about the Trostenets extermination camp opened in Minsk. To mark the 20th anniversary of the Minsk Forum, Foreign Minister Gabriel travelled to Minsk on 17 November 2017, where he met Belarus’ President Lukaschenko as well as his Belarusian opposite number Makei. On 29 June 2018, Federal President Steinmeier and Belarus’ President Lukaschenko opened the second construction stage of the Maly Trostenets/Blagovshtshina memorial site, to whose funding the Federal Foreign Office contributed. The establishment of a German-Belarusian commission of historians is planned in order to intensify the academic exchange in their field. A first conference of historians took place in Giessen in December 2018.
Germany is a major trading partner of Belarus. After bilateral trade slumped sharply, since 2017 it has been growing again. In 2017, Belarusian exports to the EU grew by 15.2 percent to 3.4 billion euros, while imports from the EU increased by 21.7 percent to around 6 billion euros. In trade with Germany, Belarusian exports were worth 507.3 million euros (+11.6 percent compared to the same period the previous year) and imports from Germany amounted to around 1.4 billion euros (+27.3 percent).
Germany is Belarus’ fourth largest trading partner, behind Russia, Ukraine and the UK, with roughly 4.5 percent of the country’s total foreign trade.
Belarus’ main exports to Germany are mineral products, metals and their products, chemical products and those of related sectors, wood and wood products; the principal imports from Germany are machinery and equipment, means of transport, chemical products and those of related sectors, plastics and plastic goods.
German business has had a representation of the DIHK (Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry) in Minsk since 2001. Despite the sometimes difficult economic and administrative conditions, at present there are around 350 German companies operating in Belarus, of which about 80 with representations which are almost all members of the German-Belarusian Economic Club.
Cultural and education
Bilateral cultural cooperation focuses on education and science, promotion of the German language, as well as music, theatre and exhibitions. The Goethe-Institut in Minsk, which was established in 1993, organises a wide range of cultural events in the country’s capital and regions besides its intensive language work. It also oversees a German library network in Belarus.
The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which opened its own Information Centre in Minsk in 2003, the German Research Foundation and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation support academic and scientific projects in Belarus. The DAAD serves the academic sector in Belarus, promoting cooperation with German universities and awarding hundreds of individual and project scholarships every year.
The Institute for German Studies in Minsk, which was established in 1998, became an independent institute of the Belarusian State University in late 2011. The institute has the largest German-language specialist library for economics, politics and law in Belarus. The institute is undergoing a process of re-orientation that involves setting up bilateral double degree programmes in business and cultural studies.
In the school sector, the Central Agency for Schools Abroad (ZfA) and the Goethe-Institut are active in Belarus as part of the Schools: Partners for the Future (PASCH) initiative. There are now 12 PASCH schools in Belarus and 13 German-Belarusian school partnerships. Since late 2009, the German Adult Education Association’s Institute for International Cooperation has had its own office in Minsk, which conducts adult education projects across the country under the motto “Lifelong Learning”.
The traditional highlight of German cultural engagement in Belarus are the German Culture Weeks, co-organised each autumn by German cultural and educational organisations and their Belarusian partners as well as the German Embassy. They are invariably well received. Also something of a tradition is the participation of the German Embassy and the Goethe-Institut in the Minsk International Book Fair held each February. A major exhibition of works by Ernst Barlach and Käthe Kollwitz was shown in the National Art Museum in Minsk in the autumn of 2017. This was the biggest German exhibition in Belarus since independence.
Relations between Germany and Belarus have traditionally been close at civil society level. Even 30 years on, a large number of private German initiatives are providing humanitarian aid to help ease the suffering caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
Numerous German NGOs are working for reconciliation with Belarus, especially against the background of the crimes committed by the National Socialists from 1941 to 1944. The German Government is providing support to a wide range of civil society activities in this area, for example the Trostenets Memorial. The Minsk opening of a touring exhibition on Trostenets, jointly designed with Belarus, took place on 13 March 2017 as a contribution to a shared European culture of remembrance.
Of importance for relations between people in both countries are the 20 German-Belarusian town twinning arrangements, many of which are complemented by school partnerships.
The Johannes Rau Centre for International Education and Exchange (IBB) – a joint German-Belarusian project – has been operating in Minsk since 1994. Its aim is to provide a place of encounter, reconciliation and dialogue. The centre is engaged in wide-ranging and civil-society-oriented intercultural education and exchange work in the political, economic, historical, media, ecumenical, environmental and social sectors with a view to helping promote democracy and the rule of law.
The German Foundation for International Legal Cooperation resumed its work in Belarus back in 2016 after an interruption lasting many years due to the political conditions. The Foundation’s agenda in Belarus focuses on cooperation and advisory services relating to concrete reform projects, for example in the spheres of legislation or access to justice. Political foundations such as the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung contribute to bilateral cooperation und understanding with their programmes and projects.
This text is intended as a source of basic information. It is regularly updated. No liability can be accepted for the accuracy or completeness of its contents.