Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me start by thanking you for this invitation. I think I can say that we’re both glad to be here.
Europe, Russia and Belarus is our theme and my colleague Vladimir Makei expressed the fear that Belarus could find itself in a situation where it’s in danger of being crushed between these two sides. However, I prefer another metaphor: I’d like Belarus to be an anchor. An anchor which links the two sides – Europe and Russia.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I’m certain that practically everyone here, especially the Germans, will have heard of Martin Luther. This year we’re celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Germany, which began with Luther’s Theses in 1517. Two weeks ago, we officially celebrated this Reformation anniversary in Wittenberg, a small town in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. I suspect, however, that Germans and Protestants outside Germany won’t know anything about Francysk Skaryna from Polatsk. Skaryna was a printer and a famous Belarusian contemporary of Martin Luther, who published the first parts of his translation of the Bible into the Belarusian language – 500 years ago.
Why am I telling you this at the outset of my speech today? It’s not because of the Reformation anniversary year but, rather, because it shows that we’ve had ties for much longer than we’re perhaps sometimes aware.
It seems to me that many people have no idea to what extent Belarus lies in the heart of Europe – not only in geographical but also in historical terms. Belarus is a genuinely European country with a rich history and culture which is closely interwoven with pan European history. One can also say that it benefited from this in good times but that, unfortunately, it has suffered tremendously whenever Europe has been in bad shape or in a difficult situation. When we talk today of the recent past and present of the bilateral relations between Belarus and Europe, I believe it’s nevertheless important to remember that our historical ties are truly profound.
We’re celebrating two anniversaries today: first of all we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Minsk Forum. On the wall behind me you can see the number “15”, a reflection of the fact that the Forum hasn’t taken place every year and that there have been difficult times. In my view, the Forum is a really important instrument: it offers the opportunity to engage in a critical yet very constructive dialogue aimed at creating a close partnership between Belarus and Germany. Moreover, it incorporates not just the political establishment but also civil society and business. That’s why it’s so important that we’re talking to each other today. And, indeed, this is the very first time that two Foreign Ministers have appeared at the Forum.
Secondly, it’s now 25 years since Belarus and Germany re established diplomatic relations. That certainly couldn’t be taken for granted at that time – nor can it today. For I don’t know whether we Germans are really aware of how astonishing this is and of how great a gift it is in the light of our history.
For Belarus is the country which suffered most during the German occupation, the Second World War and the Nazi terror. The inauguration of the Trascianiec memorial – we have to call this an extermination camp, a genocide camp – reminds us of that. That such a country has welcomed us Germans with such friendliness and openness, with an outstretched hand, certainly wasn’t self evident. Nor was it self evident that a few years after the Second World War, the countries through which shortly beforehand Germany had pillaged, burned and murdered invited us back into the fold of civilised peoples to found Europe together.
I cannot imagine that this gesture was ever very popular in these countries: not in France, not in the Netherlands, not in Belgium, not Luxembourg and not in Italy. The fact that statesmen and women in these countries said, “Yes, we want to try and build a peaceful Europe with the Germans now, for it’s not possible without them” cannot have been easy. I’m certain there was considerable resistance.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I’m saying this because I believe that today it’s a good idea to remind ourselves that this is clearly possible. Despite the most brutal memories and experiences, people – even those belonging to the generation which experienced all of this at first hand – are able to reach out to each other and to turn their enemies into partners and, with time, even into friends.
In a world which seems to be increasingly plagued by conflict every day, in which war, civil conflict, terror and confrontation are the order of the day, in which we’re no longer certain whether the international order we know will still be there for our children, it’s good to remember that there have also been positive experiences. There are narratives in which countries that had been bitter enemies nevertheless became partners and friends.
That this has happened with Belarus is thanks to the people of that country and we’re still grateful for that. Naturally, this also means that we have an obligation to ensure that this partnership and friendship continues, that it is developed and that – wherever there are difficulties and differences – we will try and overcome them.
I was very moved by the opening of the exhibition in Trascianiec in March, 75 years after the deportation of Hamburg’s Jews to Minsk. I believe it was extremely important that living witnesses such as Kurt Marx were present at the opening to help give the dead an identity and to ensure that they are not forgotten. And I believe it was equally important they gave us a message for the future. I’m very grateful that it was possible to design a joint, that’s to say a German-Belarusian exhibition to remember this extermination camp. An exhibition which was on show in Minsk itself, not far from the site where these crimes were committed – but also in Germany where this camp is – or so I believe – still largely unknown.
Against this background, the good bilateral relations between our countries today are a truly great achievement. However, we have to cultivate and reinvigorate this relationship. All those who use the Minsk Forum to build bridges, to cast anchor and to shape our relations with far sightedness are doing great work.
That applies to the German-Belarusian Association and the Johannes Rau International Centre for Education and Exchange. Our thanks also go to the Foundation for German-Polish Cooperation, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, the Office for European Expertise and Communications, as well as the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, which are also supporting this event. You’re all helping to ensure that today, 72 years after the end of the Second World War and 25 years after Belarus gained independence, our relations are marked by considerable breadth and diversity.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Minsk is just under an hour and a half from Berlin. In fact, it’s quicker to travel here than it is to Paris. In view of this proximity, it goes without saying that we should be working together to tackle challenges that transcend borders, such as the refugee situation, the fight against terrorism, as well as climate change.
Our approach to common challenges is precisely what the European Union’s Eastern Partnership is all about. In a week’s time, the 28 member states will be meeting their six partner countries at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels, where such key issues affecting the future of our partnership will be the focus of attention. Given the very different ideas of the individual partners on their relations with the EU, how can we preserve the inclusiveness of the Eastern Partnership and its regional unity? How can we strengthen cooperation within the region itself? How should we shape our relations with Russia? What about our relations with Central Asia? And we in the EU have to ask ourselves: how can we make the EU itself fit for cooperation with its eastern partners?
Perhaps even, how can we ensure that the European Union, which was founded to create peace and prosperity within, evolves into what it has to be, namely a player on the world stage. For when it comes to the international arena, conflicts and changes in the world are forcing Europe to become visible both internally and vis à vis the outside world. At the same time, I think it’s very important to also offer space and scope for our partners’ individual ideas, especially the needs of the smaller partner states.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The European Union’s strength is that it doesn’t really matter whether a country is large or small. It wasn’t established under the dominance of any one country. Rather, it’s key characteristic is that we engage with one another as equal partners and that a small state like Malta is no less important and has no fewer rights than a large state. We Germans sometimes have to explain that to our partners in the world. For people in Moscow, Beijing or Washington often think that they only have to talk to Germany. That engenders a certain distance to the European Union because these countries sometimes regard it as a strange entity. You cannot “phone Europe” and it is difficult to predict its decisions.
However, I believe it’s especially important for us Germans to say, “Yes, we want to be an anchor of stability; yes, we want to shoulder responsibility”. But anyone who wants to talk to Europe cannot only speak to us; they also have to speak to the others. In other words, we are all Europe, and no one here is less important than anyone else. Although Franco-German initiatives are crucial, they alone are not “Europe”. Rather, Europe is an entity in which no country is dominant and in which we can only succeed in defending common interests by working together.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Naturally, after many years of limited contact between the EU and Belarus we have to rebuild understanding and mutual trust. However, we have quite a good basis for that. Since 2016, the EU Belarus Coordination Group has provided a framework for regular dialogue. The contacts among government representatives, which often take place together with representatives of civil society, can now be continued at political level.
However, exchange at civil society level is vital if truly close relations are to be forged. That’s why mobility is so important. We need all sections of our society, especially young people – trainees, students, representatives of business, the cultural scene – to gain new experiences. The best way to achieve that is to travel between countries and meet other people. Belarus has waived visa requirements for citizens from 80 countries, including all EU states, for short term stays. That’s a tremendous signal. Incidentally, it also signals self confidence.
We’re negotiating a visa facilitation agreement between the EU and Belarus. We’ve already made good headway and I hope we can resolve the outstanding issues as quickly as possible and show flexibility, so that we don’t need too much time on the last leg.
Belarus is also seeking its own framework agreement with the EU, just like other states in the Eastern Partnership. I personally believe that this would be in the interest of both sides. Germany intends to support this. However, it will also depend on how Belarus develops and whether a willingness to compromise as well as confidence are signalled. Despite all our optimism, we also have to be honest: our relations were not at all trouble free for a long time.
The Minsk Forum itself was suspended for many years and the fact that resistance and scepticism emerge time and again is due to causes which still exist in some cases.
The rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, electoral reform, freedom of assembly, the difficult matter of the death penalty – these issues remain key to improving our relations.
However, there are also positive signs: the drafting of a national action plan for human rights in Belarus. This made possible concrete progress in the sphere of human and civil rights. It must now be implemented.
My colleague Vladimir Makei knows that I’d like measures to be taken to enable Belarus to accede to the Council of Europe, which would then comprise 47 states. Russia, Ukraine and all member states of the European Union are members. But there is a large blank space on the map which doesn’t belong. In my view, we should work to rectify that. Trust has to grow on both sides and when it comes to this issue, considerable progress could be achieved.
We want to accompany Belarus as it takes these steps. Offers have been made for close cooperation in many fields, with us, with the EU and with the OSCE. We’re certain that these offers haven’t fallen on deaf ears.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We need a readiness to engage in dialogue and exchange in order to map out future relations and to build bridges in Europe.
We should seek to consolidate the dialogue between Germany and Belarus and to flesh it out with concrete ideas. The Minsk Forum is practically the ideal platform for this. Let’s make use of it – not only in the next few days but in future.
For we can look back not only on 25 years of diplomatic relations but on at least 500 years of interesting relations. In 2017, we’re celebrating the Reformation, which contains the word “reform”. I believe that this is a good mission for us all.
Thank you very much for inviting us.