The Belarusian KGB fears this man.
After the events of December 19, 2010, the name of Jörg Forbrig was frequently mentioned during interrogations of arrested Belarusian opposition activists and journalists in the KGB jail. Special Services were preoccupied with the work of the German public figure in Belarus.
Today the Director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy of the German Marshall Fund’s Jörg Forbrig gave answers to the questions of editor-in-chief of charter97.org Natallia Radzina.
— Jörg, the first time I met you was at Kastrychnitskaya Square in Minsk, in March 2006. That night the police broke up the tent camp set up as a protest against the falsified presidential elections. I recall standing by your side surrounded by OMON. We could nothing but watch the “cleansing” on the square — me, a Belarusian, and you, a German But at that moment I realized that we were experiencing the same feelings: pain, indignation, desire to help, to change the situation. Seven years have passed. Today you occupy a high position. Do you still have those feelings regarding the situation in Belarus?
— Just like in 2006, I still feel that I should help Belarus, which is why I continue my work, support development of the civil society, watch closely the situation in the country and region, and try to influence the European politics regarding your country.
On the one hand, I am definitely disappointed to see what is happening in Belarus. But on the other, today I’m even more optimistic than in 2006. It may seem that the situation remains basically unchanged, or even has aggravated since 2010. But in fact, the situation in the country is completely different today.
First of all, the country’s economics is different. In early 2006, after the first part of Beltransgaz was sold, we saw that the notorious Belarusian economic stability was over. Recently we have seen multiple economic problems. There have been gas and food wars with Russia, several devaluations, the country miraculously escaped an economic collapse in 2011. And today we see that these tendencies are growing stronger.
It reminds me of the situation in Central Europe back in the 80s. In Poland, Eastern Germany and even the USSR economic problems became obvious and eventually resulted in political shifts. Any power is based on a material foundation; when this foundation is destroyed, the power is under threat. And today this is the key problem of Lukashenka’s regime.
— I know that you were at the square in Minsk on December 19, 2010, when many of your Belarusian friends were arrested. What was this day like?
— We were all completely shocked. After a certain improvement in the relations between Belarus and the European Union, many people expected a more liberal atmosphere in the country.
Indeed, the electoral campaign of 2010 was more open. And in that atmosphere there was hope that the presidential elections could lead to changes. That is why the brutal break-up of the peaceful demonstration on December 19 came as a shock.
I was stunned by how everything was staged by the powers: the provocation (very obvious in my view) in front of the House of Government, the vast amount of special forces employees, mass arrests, and the persecution of democratic activists that followed.
I remember well how after the break-up we were running from the square, and then spent the night on the phone waiting for news from our friends who had been arrested. After that we made lists of political prisoners during several days. Three days later the situation became so acute that even diplomats told us to leave, because nobody knew what would happen later.
On December 19, 2010, I saw the real face of the regime. But I also remember the huge number of courageous Belarusians who fight for democracy.
— You are an unusual person. There are not so many politicians or public figures that work with Belarus, risk their health and even lives to be able to attend opposition riots and events in Belarus. Why do you take such a risk by coming to Minsk during the “hottest” events?
— I’d like to emphasize that I am not risking anything. I am a foreigner and I come to Belarus as a person interested in the country, its people and culture. I don’t do anything illegal. If the Belarusian powers think that I act against their interests, I have full trust in my government in Germany that favors support of the civil society in Belarus. This is the difference between me and my Belarusian friends, because they obviously don’t trust their government.
I believe that foreigners should attend the events organized by the Belarusians who want democratic changes for their country. It helps, because the presence of a diplomat or a foreign guest restraints, however mildly, the powers’ lawlessness.
Moreover, it is crucial that foreigners come to these events because it shows Belarusians that they are not alone, that there are people who want to help them, who are concerned and whom they can rely on. In other words, my trips to Belarus are just a little part of the broad international support.
I, too, try to visit as many events held by Belarusian democrats in Berlin, Warsaw and other EU cities as possible. It is utterly important that all of us, Belarusians and foreigners, draw influence in the EU countries to the situation in Belarus.
— In the KGB jail they frequently asked me about the work of “German citizen Jörg Forbrig”. Of course, I didn’t give the replies that they were looking for. I said that you are my friend, a German expert who is concerned with the human rights violations in Belarus. I still wonder what the KGB investigators pursued. What in your work is so intimidating for them?
— Honestly, I don’t know. We cannot know what is going on behind the walls of Belarusian state offices. Still nobody has explained to me why I am so interesting to the KGB. I can only assume that their assignment back then was to find evidence of the “Polish-German conspiracy”.
We all recall the official media in Belarus talking about this conspiracy. Allegedly the visit of foreign ministers of Germany and Poland Guido Westerwelle and Radosław Sikorski to Minsk before the presidential elections was a part of it. I read these fairy tales in the media, and I think that they simply needed a German person for the story. It must have been easier to find Poles. They seemed to be very glad to have found “German citizen Jörgen Forbrig”.
They may have been watching my visits to Belarus for some years, to see whom I met with. They may have been reading my analytical articles about Belarus. They may as well have traced me down in Berlin where I participated in Belarus-related events regularly.
The main thing that I want to point out is that everything I do for Belarus is within the law. Moreover, my activity conforms with the obligations that my country and Belarus have to the international community. Our states took on the obligation to guarantee that civil rights, democratic values, free elections and freedom of opinion are respected.
— You had a chance to observe Lukashenka’s elections. Should the Belarusian opposition continue to participate?
— The discussion around strategy, whether to take part in the elections or boycott, is old, two groups stand by two different position. I find it a bit funny. It is crystal clear that there are no elections in Belarus. The political opposition admits it, and such is the evaluation of local and international observers. So it is unclear for me, why the elections get so much attention.
Let’s go back to the past. Not many democratic activists from Eastern Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia addressed the issue of elections in the 1970-1980s. It wasn’t their key objective because they didn’t see a potential for change in the elections. Visa versa, democratic elections are the result of such political changes.
So I am convinced that Belarusian politicians and their foreign partners should focus less on elections and more on direct community engagement.
— Jörg, you were born in the GDR, the country that doesn’t exist today. What did this country mean for you?
— For me, first of all, it is an important part of my life, because it has given me the experience that the Germans who spent their entire lives in Western Germany lack. It helps me better understand the situation in countries like Belarus where there is no democracy. This is exactly what we had when I was a child. It gives me motivation to work with the countries ruled by dictators.
In other words, it is both experience and motivation.
— There is a wonderful movie “Goodbye, Lenin”. What did you feel when you watched it?
— I felt sad. I could never understand why people say it is a comedy. But maybe this is what made the movie such a success.
For the Western society that has no experience of totalitarianism, the movie was funny. For those who had this experience, “Goodbye, Lenin” is sad.
When it was released, I lived in Slovakia. My Slovakian colleagues saw the movie with me and asked me the same question. It is not a comedy at all. This is what the reality was like, and people in Eastern Germany, and in Eastern Europe in general, remember it well.
— The boy who grew up in the GDR, what did he dream of? Have your dreams come true?
— What do boys dream of? Football first, then girls. They dream of their parents and teachers never getting to know about their pranks. This boy didn’t dream about grand things, freedom or democracy.
But in totalitarian countries, politics comes early in people’s lives. When I was 8, it was time for me to join pioneers, basically a political organization. Then I was to join German komsomol. My confirmation in church was prohibited by law. In our family, we discussed if we should stay or move to Western Germany. This is not something boys in normal countries think about, but I had to.
So I would say that as a child I dreamt about what all children in the world dream about, but on the other hand, politics entered my life very early.
— Having read the story of the repressed German TV-host Edda Schönherz, I compared Stasi jail and KGB jail. Apparently, what Edda had to endure for 40 years ago is very similar to what today’s Belarusians have to go through. Meanwhile, women received a better treatment in the Stasi jail. You can only imagine what male political prisoners are exposed to in Belarus. Why has the EU, capable of changing their fate, decided to flirt with the dictator and refrain from its obligations?
— The EU has been looking for a strategy on Belarus for many years. Various approaches have been tried, and none seems to work. After 2010, the EU has been keeping to a firmer position that has remained unchanged so far. The only thing that is different is the temporal removal of visa restrictions from foreign minister Uladzimir Makiei.
I do realize that today many people think that the EU and dictator Lukashenka are getting closer again. We have the notorious example of the unsuccessful European dialog for modernization of Belarus. Some analysts and politicians in the EU and Belarus try to cooperate with the regime. Is it a geopolitical case, economic interest or simply illusion? Obviously, supporters of this cooperation avoid the issue of political prisoners. I find this amoral.
At the same time I’d like to emphasize that there have not been any significant changes in the politics of the European Union. The question is what results the politics that was pretty rough for EU standards had. I have to admit that it wasn’t rough enough to produce the necessary impact on the Belarusian regime.
— European politicians often say that the approaches of the EU don’t work.
— The discussion remains open and everyone has a chance to speak up. Of course there are those who believe that soft measures work better than sanctions. Many Germans recall the “new eastern politics” of Chancellor Willy Brandt from the 70s that led to improvement in the relationship with certain countries of the social block.
On the other hand, there are people who, just like me, are convinced that cooperation only strengthens the regime in Minsk.
The history shows that the politics of pacifying helps dictatorships survive longer, incapable of honest relationship and long-lasting cooperation. This is exactly what we see in the relations of Belarus and Russia. These different points of view can and should be discussed.
In my view, the sanctions that the EU imposed after December 19, 2010, had certain effect. At first, visa restrictions were introduced against a big number of Belarusian officials, and then there were sanctions against Lukashenka’s oligarchs and their companies. Then, in February 2012, all European ambassadors left Minsk, and several weeks later additional economic sanctions were introduced. All these events have sent a clear signal that the EU is ready for decisive actions.
Moreover, gradually imposed sanctions became a new trend that the official Minsk could understand. The Belarusian regime realized that even if the current sanctions haven’t given a result yet, the EU will inevitably find the regime’s sore points and implement effective measures.
There are clear examples that prove that this sanction politics work. Thus, it led to the release of Andrei Sannikov and Dzmitry Bandarenka. But unfortunately after that the European Union stopped. If this politics had continued, there would have probably been no political prisoners left in Belarus.
Basically, the key problem of the European politics is its insufficient consistency.
— What has changed after the sanctions were lifted from Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makiei?
— Nothing. I do understand western diplomats who say that they need a channel to communicate with Makiei. Of course, it is their job to discuss problems with colleagues. And there should be certain channels of communication, even with such a regime, because there are common problems. But these contacts shouldn’t necessarily involve one of the key figures of this criminal regime coming to the European Union. One can always talk over telephone or meet outside the EU.
The only result that I have seen since the sanctions were lifted is the propaganda success of the Belarusian government. Now the regime can say: indeed, it is us, not the European Union, who decide who will be on the sanctions list.
There are no other results. European officials will meet with Makiei, but I don’t believe that it will lead something. There were lots of such meetings in 2008-2010. But after the period of temporary improvement of the relationship, the regime has only tightened the screws.
— In an interview you mentioned that “changes will come to Belarus only under one condition: if Lukashenka and his accomplices leave.” Why haven’t European politicians accepted this clear and simple idea?
— I think that the European Union has no illusions concerning Lukashenka and his regime. Even if there were such illusions, they disappeared on December 19, 2010. But still, as I have already said, our politicians seek ways to work with Belarus and to support changes in your country, and they still haven’t figured out the best way to do it.
Another problem is that European politicians who are in charge of the Belarusian issue change all the time. New governments are formed after new elections, new foreign ministers are appointed. Each of them has their experience and opinion, and changes the foreign politics of their country accordingly. The same thing happens in the EU structures that regularly appoint new officials. And by the way, this is an integrate part of democracy.
The only unchangeable player is Lukashenka. And this is a beneficial position because the regime in Minsk can in fact simply wait for a new partner.
All European politicians pass the same cycle: first there is hope that they can influence Belarus, then there is disappointment and realization that actions should be more decisive, but it is already time to leave the post. The problem is that there are no politicians who immediately pick one specific direction.
— Last year you wrote an article about our website, Charter of Belarusian Freedom. You told the story of the website that had gone through murders and arrests of journalists, and pointed out how crucial it is to work with charter97.org. How important is it to support independent Belarusian media?
— Of course, independent media and civil society get support, and it has increased since 2010. Projects for change that work in Belarus and abroad are sustained. There will never be enough resources. We all feel shortage of money. We need to make decisions and set priorities, selecting most important projects and most influential organizations. Many organizations and leaders face this problem.
But we should find additional resources to support such important projects as charter97.org, other independent media and democratic organizations.
Another problem is that the shock of the events of December 10, 2010, smoothens. Our politicians, diplomats and donors are not as eager to support democratic movement in Belarus. We need patience, constant attention and long-term strategies of support. Only then we can guarantee support of Belarusian media not for one, but for two, three, five year-span.
Few think of such long-term strategy. This is a problem of the Belarusian civil society. To develop a website like charter97.org, one should develop independent media and structures of the civil society, one needs long-lasting support, and very often we cannot give it.
— In other words, what should the single strategy of the West concerning Belarus be like?
— The main problem of our politics regarding Belarus, and in fact regarding other countries of the Eastern Partnership, is that we don’t give Belarus a clear European prospect.
From the experience of Central Europe we know that the key external factor of all political changes that have taken place after 1989 has been the prospect of joining the European Union. And the generous and long-lasting support of the key political, economic and social reforms has been linked to it.
Today, Belarus doesn’t have this prospect and support of the reforms. And this is a mistake.
The same mistake was made in the 1990s, when we treated former USSR-countries separately from the social block. In Central Europe, the reforms whose results we still see today got serious support. The former USSR got only technical help with no focus on democratic and constitutional reform. And basically this is still happening.
Belarus needs a clear European perspective and concrete European support on the way of reforms. With all the challenges that the EU is facing today, I am convinced that we in Europe are getting closer to this type of politics regarding Belarus.