-- Translation of advance text --
Ladies and gentlemen,
Distinguished participants in the Dialogue on Modernization,
I am delighted to open the third conference of the European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarus this evening.
Following on from Warsaw and Tallinn, we now want to carry on our discussions here in Berlin and look together at ways of modernizing Belarusian society.
Belarus is our European neighbour both geographically and historically. It is closely linked to Germany and Europe both culturally and economically. Belarusians are Europeans.
They, too, deserve a European future.
That is precisely why we are so concerned about the situation in Belarus. While other states in the region chose the path towards the European Union, a path based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus is clinging to the structures of the past.
There are still political prisoners in Belarus. The repression of members of the opposition, the independent media and civil society is ongoing. The death penalty is being carried out.
The EU has reacted by imposing targeted sanctions on those responsible.
Given the lack of respect for democratic and rule of law norms, cooperation with the Belarusian Government is proving difficult.
Yet we want to deepen cooperation with Belarus for which the offer of the EU’s Eastern Partnership is just as valid as it is for Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova.
The offer means support, integration into European structures. But it is inextricably linked to the expectation of political and economic reform. The two go hand in hand, they are two sides of the same coin.
That is why it is so important that we have well thought through reform proposals in the relevant spheres on the table that can be discussed in Belarus as soon as the political situation allows the process of modernization and reform in the country.
This is the central goal of the European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarus, launched almost a year ago in Brussels.
The Dialogue on Modernization aims to promote the exchange of ideas and encourage people to think about transformation.
The key player in this Dialogue is the democratically minded civil society in Belarus. Germany and the EU are doing what they can to lend support.
To cite just a few examples of our cooperation:
- The Goethe Institut and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) are offering academic support for young Belarusians interested in Germany. The DAAD awards 400 scholarships every year. Thousands are taking part in the Goethe Institut courses and programmes in Minsk.
- We are supporting the work of the political foundations in Belarus. They are offering targeted programmes, for example media seminars, to strengthen the organization and activities of civil society.
- We are supporting the International Education and Exchange Centre (IBB) in Minsk which in turn is working with civil society on projects concerning society, the rule of law and history.
With this conference, too, we want to send a clear signal of support for Belarusian civil society.
We want to help these courageous and committed people to change their country for the better and launch reform to bring Belarus back on to the European path. And we want to show that we are putting our faith in the democratic forces in Belarus!
This conference was made possible first and foremost by German organizations working in Belarus. I would like to take this opportunity to thank our co organizers: the German Belarusian Association (dbg) and the Minsk Forum, the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Association for International Exchange and Education, the German Association for Eastern European Studies and the Commerzbank.
Honoured guests from Belarus, as you can see, you have many friends in Germany!
The subject of the conference, reform in the fields of social and municipal policy, is particularly relevant now. Perhaps even more than Germany, Belarus is facing enormous demographic, economic and social pressures. The population is ageing, the economy is only keeping its head above water thanks to Russian subsidies and the need for social support is growing.
It is often left to the municipalities to deal with social problems.
For this reason, tomorrow’s specialist conference is also to look at questions of municipal policy and discuss ways for the municipalities to participate and shape policy in the social sphere.
Without fundamental reform in the fields of social and municipal policy, it is unclear how long social safety nets in Belarus will cope. The collapse of these social safety nets would be a hard blow to the people in Belarus – also to the municipalities which implement many social measures.
In the next two days, we are bringing together experts here in the Europasaal of the Federal Foreign Office who can exchange views on the possibilities and implementation of reform in the fields of social and municipal policy in Belarus.
We hope that the participants from Belarus will head home with new ideas, new plans and new approaches for reform and continue working on these upon their return.
And we hope they will soon be able to do so while enjoying greater freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
I wish all participants lively discussions, exciting exchange and a successful conference.