‘Our relations are fuelled by passionate people’
[b]Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to the Federative Republic of Germany, H.E. Mr. Andrei Giro, tells us about changes to Belarusians’ perception of Germany [/b]Mr. Ambassador, we are meeting on the eve of the Great Victory, celebrated by our country on May 9th. The Belarusian Embassy to Germany is located opposite Berlin’s Treptower Park, where the famous Soviet Cenotaph is situated. How far does the memory of that war unite us with the Germans? Do Germans today feel repentance in the same way as their fathers?
Mr. Ambassador, we are meeting on the eve of the Great Victory, celebrated by our country on May 9th. The Belarusian Embassy to Germany is located opposite Berlin’s Treptower Park, where the famous Soviet Cenotaph is situated. How far does the memory of that war unite us with the Germans? Do Germans today feel repentance in the same way as their fathers?
The theme of the Great Patriotic War leaves its mark, one way or another, on the status of bilateral relations and on their development. You’ve noted the variance of different generations’ perceptions. Sadly, modern German youngsters know little of WW2, since Germany lacks a special university course on it, unlike Belarus. For the older generation, the theme of repentance and confession has been fundamental. They personally remember that war and many lost relatives in those years. Accordingly, they perceive the war not only in terms of an aggressive attack on the Soviet Union but also in terms of their own personal, family drama. Not all Germans were active members of the National-Socialist Party; many were sent to the frontline unwillingly and died — as Soviet soldiers did.
There is no arguing with the fact that Nazi Germany unleashed war. Similarly, former Soviets helped liberate the world from fascism. However, there are forces — including in the West — who try to revise and re-write history. We (not only the Belarusian Embassy but also other missions accredited in Berlin representing Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan) are striving to counteract these attempts. For example, a press conference dedicated to the 65th anniversary of Victory was organised in Berlin by the Russian Embassy, with the participation of all CIS ambassadors. We distributed a press release regarding the contribution of Belarusians to the defeat of Nazi fascism. Using figures, facts and calculations, we outlined our economic contribution, showing that the Victory was the result of more than frontline operations. Many Belarusian enterprises were evacuated and thousands of people continued working in the Volga region, the Urals and the Middle East.
Of course, we are proud of our military contribution. If I’m not mistaken, 448 Belarusians are heroes of the Soviet Union. We know how many partisan brigades were operational; in 1943, they controlled almost 60 percent of Belarusian territory. This was undoubtedly a contribution to Victory. We are trying to inform the German public of this; older generations already understand. During the press conference, we focused on the fact that Germany was liberated not only by Russians, but also by Belarusians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs and Georgians…
In the early 1990s, when independent Belarus appeared on the European map and its borders opened, German citizens began arriving, searching for the graves of their forefathers who had fought here. Their aspirations to achieve reconciliation and give assistance have yielded fruit, including projects to alleviate the consequences of Chernobyl.
Of course, we don’t only associate Germany with the war. Economic strength, a reliable trade-economic partner and humanitarian assistance come to mind. Twenty years ago, the situation was different; we’ve come a long way. Nevertheless, people haven’t forgotten the war; I hope it will never be forgotten. Both in Belarus and Germany, people are taking care of monuments to dead soldiers. In the early 1990s, when an agreement on Germany’s union was signed, the USSR gave consent for the reunification of the German people. A special article was written, requiring Germany to attend to all Soviet monuments within the FRG. This obligation is fulfilled impeccably. A special organisation is operational in Germany — the Union for the Care of Military Graves. We’ve established good co-operation. German activists are also restoring German cemeteries in Belarus. It’s a humane approach, although I know that not everyone approves; some veteran organisations do not support such projects. Local authorities are overseeing the work; people with a high level of civil responsibility allow Germans to take care of their graves.
The Union is pleased that co-operation with Belarus is developing fruitfully. Embassy representatives have been invited to attend all events connected with the memory of soldiers who died on the frontline, irrespective of their nationality. We accept these invitations with pleasure, as this is another element of mutual understanding and reconciliation.
Common opinion is that Belarus and Germany have ‘special’ relations due to a feeling of guilt and that this inspires public initiatives regarding Chernobyl, alongside other civil, cultural and humanitarian ties. Is it true that this is what motivates the German Government to a more active policy regarding Belarus?
Public organisations are influential in Germany, each trying to influence areas of policy, including foreign strategy. However, we believe that our mutual relations stem not only from feelings of guilt but from a genuine assessment of the present political situation in Europe. Not unfoundedly do we call Belarus a ‘bridge’ between the East and the West. Germany may one day recognise us as an important partner, as we are contributing significantly to European security.
We can already list the steps and initiatives we’ve taken in this direction. We’ve voluntarily refused to stock nuclear weapons and have made cuts to conventional armaments. Meanwhile, in line with the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, we’ve retired more tanks, weaponry and infantry than some countries combined. This is our contribution to ensuring European security. Working well with our fellow Europeans, we’re liaising to battle illegal migration, drug and weapon smuggling. All agree that the Belarusian-European border is the safest boundary; fewer illegal migrants arrive in the EU via Belarus’ border than any other. Our contribution is rooted in ensuring transit security for Europe.
With this in mind, we hope the German Government assesses the situation thoroughly and fairly rather than relying only on the historical past — despite its importance. We believe it sees modern Belarus’ contribution to European security, transit and trade. It’s no coincidence that our trade relations are developing successfully. In just five years, Belarus-Germany turnover quadrupled, reaching a record $4bn in 2008. In 2009, it fell to $3.5bn — due to the financial crisis. Nevertheless, our exports increased 21 percent, with Belarus selling $1bn of products to Germany. This was a good result.
Brandenburg’s Minister-President, Matthias Platzeck, is visiting Minsk these days. Last year, the Economy Minister of Saxony paid an official visit. After a 13 year break, the Economic Co-operation Council has recommenced its work. Trade is surpassing the political sphere, even setting the pace for the latter.
I won’t comment on Belarusian-German relations in isolation from Belarusian-European ties. The German Government has decided to renew the work of the Business Co-operation Council, under pressure from evidence. Turnover is growing, as is interest from business circles. Over 400 German companies have representations, joint ventures or 100 percent foreign companies in Belarus. German firms are interested in supplying tools, equipment and technologies here. These products are in demand in Belarus, where technical modernisation is to the fore. Belarus annually purchases at least $1bn of tools and equipment from Germany, as seen in the past 10-15 years.
Brandenburg’s PM is here to establish production using German capital. More active participation by German businesses in the energy sphere is under focus as well, primarily regarding renewable sources. I hope a draft document will soon appear to construct a park of wind turbines in the Minsk region, using German technologies and external financing. Moreover, our Parliament’s special commission is now studying a draft project on alternative energy, inspired by German experience.
I’d also like to note the huge significance of Mr. Platzeck’s proposals regarding education. Brandenburg is offering to train our mid-level managers, since they’ll define the future of our foreign economic activity. We need to teach them how to think in the modern way, mastering the art of business negotiations. They should also learn how to prepare business plans and so on, to meet Western standards. Brandenburg is offering to share its experience.
Logistics is another topic of study, as the Germans are experts in this field, ready to help set up logistics centres in Belarus. With the establishment of our Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan, the doorway is opened to these countries too. There are some interesting joint initiatives in the field of culture and environmental protection.
Brandenburg is in the east of Germany, geographically and mentally close to us. The Western Group of Forces was dislocated there some time ago. Mr. Platzeck resided in the area where Soviet soldiers lived for 35 years and still remembers the smell of diesel fuel. However, if we wish to gain access to advanced technologies, we should also look further west of Berlin.
The German Government is constantly renewing our credit line. Hermes guarantees exports of German equipment, insuring export risks. If it participates in a transaction, German suppliers feel more secure. Regarding loans (plafonds), Hermes looks primarily at Belarus’ economic situation, as well as our foreign debt and export potential. It decides whether we’ll be able to repay such loans.
In early 2009, we received $100m for particular projects, spending the money within two weeks. There were so many applications from German companies that the money was quickly spent. Accordingly, in late 2009, we received another $100m — also spent quickly. What does this mean? Firstly, it shows the reliability and steadfastness of Belarusian partners. We strictly follow our obligations to repay loans. Our attitude towards credit repayment inspires new plafonds and our old ones are extended. Naturally, this is pleasing, as it opens paths to purchasing new equipment. Issues of export financing are being studied by Germany thoroughly, as exports are a serious priority for the nation.
At present, there is much talk of the German Chancellor realising her own ‘Eastern policy’. What place does Belarus occupy within it?
Firstly, the political elite and public alike view Belarus as an independent and sovereign state. On building its eastern policy, German diplomats and economists are taking this fact into consideration. I’m not sure that Belarus occupies a special place in its Eastern policy but, in a regional context, our country is viewed equally alongside Ukraine and Moldova. These countries border the European Union, participate in the ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme and are included in the plan of action of border agreements. I don’t wish to exaggerate our role but we should not be too modest. I hope we occupy the place we deserve.
Germany traditionally leads European affairs. Does it contribute to the promotion of Eastern Partnership projects? You recently discussed the issue at Berlin’s Heinrich Boell Foundation. Was the discussion constructive?
The Polish-Swedish ‘Eastern Partnership’ initiative is actively supported by Germany, which traditionally has its own interests in the East. As regards its present development, the situation is ambiguous. There are objective reasons hindering the realisation of the ‘Eastern Partnership’. European bodies are being reformed while the Foreign Minister post is still being introduced. Additionally, the EU Foreign Affairs Council is still being established. Naturally, these disturbances are not to the benefit of the ‘Eastern Partnership’. Until the European Commission’s structure is well formed, we can hardly hope to see our projects treated seriously. Meanwhile, the second, third and fourth reasons depend on partner-countries’ activities.
We have various projects in our common basket though…
Last December, ‘Eastern Partnership’ foreign ministers met and we officially introduced our projects to the EC — prepared with the participation of Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine and Poland. We did our best to propose ideas which would be profitable not only to Belarus, but to the whole of Europe. The construction of a high-speed Berlin-Moscow motorway was among them. Among other projects is the construction of transport corridor No.9, linking Klaipeda and Ukraine; it could also be extended to Bulgaria. It would profit everyone, so deserves support. 700m euros have been allocated for the ‘Eastern Partnership’ but this won’t be enough; separate financing is needed, so much work lies ahead for us, our partners and EU diplomats.
We are slightly disappointed by the slow pace of the study of these projects. No mechanisms have been elaborated for the study of our proposals, their assessment and decision making. This is why our efforts are concentrated on ensuring a concrete plan of action within the ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme. Another meeting of foreign ministers is scheduled for May, in Sopтt. We hope to see concrete mechanisms elaborated for the fulfilment of practical projects.
As regards discussions at the Heinrich Boell Foundation, these featured an opinion exchange regarding the ‘Eastern Partnership’. The German Foreign Ministry — represented by the Head of the Department for Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Moldova — believes it’s wrong to expect any results within a single year. According to him, patience is needed. A bright example is the initiative for EU southern neighbours — the ‘Mediterranean Dimension’. It has already surpassed the ‘Eastern Partnership’ in its intensity of ideas, meetings and contacts. The German Foreign Ministry views the ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme as promising and successfully developing, so doesn’t share our scepticism regarding its slow pace. Moreover, it’s been noted that we lack a co-operative agreement with the EU; one was signed in 1995 but is yet to be ratified. This is always a focus of our meetings — both at governmental and parliamentary levels. In mid-April, the Belarusian Embassy to Germany, in Berlin, received official notification of the creation of a parliamentary group responsible for Bundestag liaisons with Belarus. We’ll continue to develop this very important sphere via our friends in this group.
Are they really our friends? Do they treat Belarus kindly?
They aren’t indifferent to Belarus. They represent various political parties and have different views on the situation and on Belarus’ path of development, as is normal. We hope they’ll contribute to developing our relations.
I’ve long followed a small yet phenomenal example of friendship and mutual understanding: liaisons between a German school (from Saxony’s Pirna) and a Belarusian school. The pupils make exchange visits to do repairs, take holidays or give concerts. Do you agree that many ties which began as humanitarian projects have matured beyond this and now encompass mutual interest and the exchange of values?
All projects involve real people, who are engines of ‘people’s diplomacy’. If people are interested and show initiative, the sphere of their projects grows. Of course, many began as humanitarian assistance but, later, transformed into joint projects: economic, environmental and cultural. At present, 19 cities in Belarus and Germany are officially twinned. For instance, Vitebsk and Frankfurt an der Oder have been liaising for 20 years. We have schools, societies and clubs keeping in contact — at city and federal level. Ties which originate from simple means are usually more efficient and push politicians to make necessary decisions. The town of Nienburg alone has three initiative groups developing relations with Belarus. There are hundreds of such examples. The Embassy is not aware of all of them, as diplomats usually only join if problems arise.
You recently met the Sorbs who live near Dresden. Why?
Of course, this was the call of my heart (smiling). Firstly, the theme of national minorities is vital to modern Europe. The Sorbs are one of the few national minorities officially acknowledged by Germany. I met the head of the Sorbs’ Public Association and visited the famous library in Gцrlitz, to see a rare edition of the Bible, printed by Frantsisk Skorina. It was discovered by the HornjoserbЁćina (Upper Sorbian) Scientific Society in 2003; 1,316 pages of the Bible were printed in Prague from 1517-1519 and were owned by Gцrlitz until 1527. This unique book is part of Belarusian culture and is a European treasure. We are now negotiating to return it to its Motherland, to show Belarusians. If our plans come to fruition, in 2012, in time to mark the 20th anniversary of our diplomatic relations, the book will return. Moreover, the Sorbs are promising to attend Vitebsk’s ‘Slavonic Bazaar’. The Minister-President of the German Free State of Saxony, Stanislaw Tillich, is a Sorb, as is our Honorary Consul in Brandenburg. We speak almost the same language, as Belarusian and Sorbian are similar.
Finishing on a spiritual note, please tell us about Alexander Nevsky Church, in Potsdam. I believe our Embassy staff visit often and that this unique church’s Prior is a Belarusian — Father Anatoly…
The Belarusian Orthodox Church is strongly represented in Germany. Everyone remembers that our Metropolitan Filaret once served there, as Archbishop of Berlin and Central Europe, the Patriarchal Exarch of Central Europe. When we discovered that there was a church near Berlin headed by a Belarusian, we were full of joy and pride. Our Embassy staff attend the Christmas and Easter services.
Our Embassy often hosts cordial meetings, bringing together representatives of our twin-cities, Chernobyl charity workers and journalists. Such events attract attention to our work. Interestingly, our Embassy in Berlin is among our ‘youngest’ in Europe, with staff boasting an average age of 40. They are well educated, with a modern outlook. They know the German language and understand German mentality, so can communicate and express our position well. We promote ourselves as a European nation which knows and understands its role within Europe and can explain and defend its views. Eventually, this is how Belarus will be known worldwide.
Thank you for the interview.
By Nina Romanova