German foreign minister calls for free elections in Belarus

Guido Westerwelle has visited to Belarus, the first German foreign minister to visit the authoritarian country in 15 years. The visit came as strained relations with Russia may be turning Belarus westward.

Germany and Poland reached out to Belarus on Tuesday as the two countries' foreign ministers arrived for an official visit to the authoritarian state, dubbed by human rights groups as "the last dictatorship in Europe."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made the trip, along with his Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski, at the end of a two-day tour of Eastern Europe, visiting Moscow on Monday and Vilnius, Lithuania earlier on Tuesday.

The visit represented a shift in German relations with Belarus, which has not hosted a German foreign minister in 15 years, and comes less than two months before new presidential elections in the former Soviet state on December 19.

Westerwelle met with President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and won the last election with 83 percent, as well as opposition candidates for president, who he said should have free access to state media.

"From our view of things, the presidential elections will be a litmus test for your commitment to democracy," Westerwelle told Lukashenko during the meeting. The allowance of international observers was a "step in the right direction."

'Window of opportunity' for EU

Ahead of his trip to Belarus, Westerwelle said that an approach to the European Union by Belarus could happen "only if legal standards are met." But according to Stefan Meister, Eastern Europe expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, Belarus has shown no interest in joining the EU. And despite the bloc's attempts to become a greater player on the world stage, he said the EU's interests remain internal.

"European Union has no instruments for countries which have no interest in joining," he told Deutsche Welle. "There is no real functioning policy towards this country, and I think this is also the reason why Europe is not really successful towards Belarus."

Still, there are signs that Belarus is interested in closer cooperation with the West. Ties with Russia, historically its closest ally, hit a new low earlier in the year when Russia cut off gas supplies to Belarus over a payment dispute. And according to Meister, this may be the time for Germany and the EU to step in.

"There is maybe a window of opportunity to get more in contact with Lukashenko and his regime," he said. "Maybe there's a chance for some reforms or the beginning of a new process between the European Union and Belarus."

'Diplomatic offensive'

The German visit to Belarus continues on Wednesday, when Chancellor Angela Merkel's Chief of Staff Ronald Pofalla is to give a speech at the Minsk Forum, an even created in 1997 to facilitate dialogue between the two countries.

Organizers of the event said Pofalla would make a "robust" appeal for democratic reforms in Belarus, and that Germany was launching a "diplomatic offensive."

Poland and Germany are two of the few countries in the European Union that have taken an interest in Belarus, Meister said. But despite their efforts to push democratic reforms, nothing can be expected in the immediate future - and certainly not before next month's elections.

"If we observe the developments in the last month, we can see that [Lukashenko] has been pressuring the opposition, that he pressures the media," he said. "He still has the same instruments of the regime to make everything clear for the next election."

Author: Andrew Bowen

Editor: Matt Hermann


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