For decades, the country in the heart of Europe has been a blank spot for most Western Europeans: widely unknown and unnoticed.
Minsk is only a little more than 1000 km away from Berlin, and yet for many, Belarus is still an unknown country. Little knowledge, lack of personal contacts and some negative headlines have often led to stereotypes about the country and its people in recent years. Belarus has yet a long and rich history in the middle of Europe, at the crossroads of cultures and religions. Repeatedly, Belarus has been the victim of major wars: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and in both world wars.
Different states historically existed on the lands that are now Belarus, such as the Duchy of Polatsk (10th – 14th centuries) or the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, shaped to a significant extent by Eastern Slavic culture and tradition (13th – 18th centuries). In the 16th -18th centuries, present-day Belarus was part of a Poland-dominated union between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland – the Rzeczpospolita. After that, Belarus was part of the Russian Empire (18th-20th centuries) and the Soviet Union (20th century).
The Belarusian national idea, Belarusian literature and historiography emerged towards the end of the 19th century. In March 1918, after the Peace of Brest-Litovsk, the short-lived Belarusian Democratic Republic (BNR) was declared. From 1922 to 1939, the Western part of present-day Belarus was part of the Polish state.
In 1991, the presidents of the Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian Soviet republics decided to dissolve the Soviet Union. This once again gave the Belarusian people the opportunity to form their own nation state.
The declaration of independence in 1991 led to international political contacts, including with Germany and the European Union. Relations with Western states initially developed positively. These contacts were to a great extent based on the numerous civil society Chernobyl initiatives that had emerged in many European countries since the late 1980s in support of those affected in the contaminated areas of Belarus.
However, with the controversial constitutional referendum, through which President Aliaksandr Lukashenka, elected in 1994, abolished the separation of powers in Belarus in 1996 to a large extent, official contacts from EU’s side were significantly frozen.
In response to this contact ban, the international conference “Minsk Forum” was initiated in 1997. Since then, the format has become the central event in German-Belarusian relationships, even in challenging political times.
The conference was established to maintain political, economic and civil society contacts between Belarus on one side and Germany and the EU on the other, even in difficult political times. In addition, it helped to ensure that the various actors in Belarus – non-governmental organisations, the government and the opposition – were able to talk at eye level.
Two years later, in the summer of 1999, the German-Belarusian Society was founded with the aim of expanding the range of projects and activities with Belarus.
Since then, the dynamics of German-Belarusian relations have changed several times, going through ups and downs. The absolute low point has been reached with the violent suppression of the protests against the rigged presidential election in the summer and autumn of 2020. The wave of repression against Belarusian society continues to this day. After Lukashenka had turned Belarus into a staging ground for the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, Western European countries’ contacts with Belarus were completely put on hold.
Despite all political adversities, projects with Belarus, in particular, with civil society initiatives, remain a concern of the German-Belarusian Society that seeks to contribute to international understanding and reconciliation.