At a turning point: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Belarus

Jakob Wöllenstein,
Belarus Office (based in Vilnius, Lithuania),

At the time of writing this article in mid-September 2020, the political crisis in Belarus which followed the presidential elections of August 2020 has reached a stalemate. The mobilization of society is still in full swing but Aliaksandr Lukashenko renounces any substantial dialogue and relies on force and support from Russia. Although it is not clear how the situation will develop in the medium term, things won’t be as they were before. These fundamental changes severely affect the work of foreign organizations and foundations, such as the German Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS).

The German political foundations which are financed by state budget and were originally designed to buttress democracy in Germany, but today complement the country’s foreign policy by means of political networking, civil society cooperation and track-two-diplomacy. For the KAS, the foundation associated with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the promotion of democracy, rule of law and social market economy is among the key values. However, the operational work “on the ground” varies from country to country, depending on the given circumstances and possibilities.

In Belarus, this “room for manoeuvre” had reached new heights since 2015. Minsk’s positioning regarding the Ukraine crisis and the release of political prisoners had become the starting point for an overall thaw in relations with the West, which had been frosty since 2010. Minsk developed a new self-image of a donor of regional security, the government liked to talk about a new Helsinki process and some even started dreaming about foreign policy neutrality. Belarus increased its footprint within the framework of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, mostly focusing on practical progress and economic aspects and also some domestic political liberalization began. The KAS took a proactive role in these years to improve the relations and significantly increased its presence in the country despite not being able to open an office in Minsk. The foundation’s work consisted of educational and advisory programs, dialogue between Belarus and the EU on all levels from students over experts to decision makers as well as international conferences, workshops, seminars, scholarships and publications. In cooperation with local partners, a special focus was put on foreign and security policy as well as economic cooperation.

The positive trend of the security and foreign policy emancipation of Belarus was abruptly halted after August 9th. Lukashenko had not just falsified another election but this time, according to all available evidence, he had lost to a contender who didn’t even want to be president but just ran on the simple promise to restore democracy. He promised his security forces impunity for whatever they deemed necessary to suppress protests – and they went on a rampage against civilians. The brutal detention of thousands of people, hundreds of accounts of abuse and torture, several fatalities and the overall blunt contempt for the rule of law let to an unprecedented public outcry and accelerated mass mobilisation. Not being able to regain control of the situation, neither by force nor social handouts, Lukashenko turned to Russia – although the relations with the Eastern neighbour had been in a free fall throughout the last one and a half years. During the campaign he had even blamed the Kremlin more or less directly for undermining the country’s sovereignty but after the West criticised the election fraud and Putin congratulated, he made a U-turn towards Moscow. Both now blame the West for “organising a colour revolution” – they just cannot accept the reality that there is a genuine peaceful domestic uprising by the people who are not simply a post-soviet mass looking to the authorities for orientation but a modern society standing up for dignity and their constitutional rights.

In such a situation, it usually doesn’t take long before actors like the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung are falsely “identified” as unfriendly foreign agents and their local partners come under political pressure. Fortunately, this has not yet happened – possibly as a result of five years of constructive cooperation and trust building. However, the foundation’s activities in the country had already been limited because of COVID-19 and are now reduced to a minimum. For the time being, the role of KAS is mostly one of a think tank with the main goal to analyse the situation and develop policy recommendations for Germany and the EU in close contact with experts from Belarus. Those include using diplomatic channels to Russia to work out a solution which represents the will of the Belarusian people but doesn’t contradict the interests of the neighbours, offer humanitarian aid to all those who have fallen victim to repressions and police violence and support those who want to engage in a true dialogue within the society. In the medium and long term, international attention must be sustained and the EU should develop a generous stabilization package to support the Belarusian economy.

Hopefully, KAS will not only be able to restart its programmes soon but to expand our activities – since the foundation has a lot to offer for Belarus. Our network into politics, administration, economy and think tanks has repeatedly been estimated to be the best in the world and gives endless opportunities to provide insights into best practice for all fields of political life. With six decades of experience in international cooperation, the foundation stands ready to play its part in elevating the relations with Belarus to a new blooming.


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