Last updated in March 2017
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 the 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.
A process of gradual rapprochement that began in 2008 ended with the presidential elections in December 2010. The German Government has 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 prison terms of up to several years. These measures constitute a bitter 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 and 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), 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.
In view of this situation, EU policy has focused on making a gradual fresh start in relations with Belarus. The sanctions against Belarus were thus initially suspended from 1 November 2015 for four months and eventually largely lifted at the end of February 2016. Foreign Minister Steinmeier hosted a visit to Berlin by his Belarusian counterpart Makei on 18 November 2015. Given the largely non-repressive conduct of the presidential elections in September 2016 (though certain points of criticism remain), the German Government is supporting the process of rapprochement and advocating further steps to promote respect for human rights, democratic development and the strengthening of civil society exchange between the two countries.
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 – from 24 to 26 November 2016. We will mark 25 years of renewed diplomatic relations on 13 March. On that day, a touring exhibition about the Trostenets extermination camp will open in Minsk as a joint project between the two countries.
Trade between Germany and Belarus slumped sharply, to a mere USD 2.47 billion last year, thus accounting for 4.4% of Belarus’s total foreign trade. Belarusian exports to Germany were worth USD 1.09 billion (a decline of 34.3%) and Belarusian imports from Germany USD 1.39 billion (a 43.8% drop). Germany is accordingly Belarus’ fourth largest trading partner, behind Russia (51% of total foreign trade), Ukraine (7.4%) and China (4.4%). In 2014, bilateral trade had been worth USD 4.08 billion, or 5.3% of the country’s total foreign trade.
Culture and education
Cultural relations between Belarus and Germany are founded on the cultural agreement signed in 1994. Cooperation focuses on education and science and promoting 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 21 PASCH schools in Belarus. 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 that is held each February. A major exhibition of works by Ernst Barlach and Käthe Kollwitz is scheduled to be shown in the National Art Museum in Minsk in the autumn of 2017. This will be the biggest German exhibition in Belarus since independence.
Relations between Germany and Belarus have traditionally been close at the level of civil society. A large number of private German initiatives are providing humanitarian aid to help ease the suffering caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, the effects of which are still being felt nearly 30 years later.
Numerous German non-governmental organisations are working for reconciliation with Belarus, which was particularly hard hit by both World Wars. 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, will take 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 22 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.
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.