Minsk Forum: From Specialized Event to Meeting for Hundreds
Since 1997, the Minsk Forum aims at assisting democracy in Belarus. Hundreds of Belarusians gather for this yearly conference thanks to the German-Belarusian Society, since 2020 without representatives of the Minsk authorities.
In 1997, not long after Belarus gained independence and Alexander Lukashenka became president, about a dozen academics, mainly historians, from Belarus and Germany gathered for the first meeting of what would become the Minsk Forum.
The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe played a significant role in fostering this platform for cooperation between Belarus and Germany. Another reason for it was to host a discussion on Germany’s actions on the territory of Belarus during the Second World War.
The Minsk Forum eventually became a conference where democratic activists, academics, civil society organizations, politicians, and independent media discuss how to achieve the collective goal of a democratic future for Belarus.
By 2000, it had evolved into an annual conference held at the IBB Centre in Minsk. The participants from Belarus and Germany sought contact and aimed to promote the positive development of Belarus.
The German-Belarusian Society has organized the Minsk Forum since 1999, and it has been the official partner of Germany’s government and foundations in it. For most of its existence, it has been a large event with between 300 and 400 participants. However, the German-Belarusian Society is a small German-registered civil society organization working on a voluntary basis, without any staff. Currently, it has about 60 members.
Becoming Political in the 2000s
In 2000, the Minsk Forum became political after political opponents of Lukashenka disappeared in suspicious circumstances. In 1998, the European Union had already imposed its first sanctions on Belarus.
Despite this, participants could assemble without much interference and even discuss controversial topics. German participants as well as freethinking Belarusian experts and academics had a different development path in mind for Belarus than that pursued by the regime. From this point, the Minsk Forum became—with interruptions—an open venue for political discussions, and it kept playing this role until 2020.
Serving as such a communication channel was one of the important functions of the Minsk Forum for its organizers. However, a part of civil society and the opposition in Belarus criticized the event for being too close to Lukashenka’s administration. The regime should not be given a stage, according to these critics. But the German-Belarusian Society stresses that the Minsk Forum was never on the side of Lukashenka.
Between 2003 and 2010, the Minsk Forum was the only yearly conference in Belarus organized from the West. During this time, there were usually from 350 to 400 participants, most of them Belarusians with nearly 20–30 Germans and sometimes other foreigners. Other, bigger conferences were arranged by Belarus or Russia.
In 2010, after the presidential election and the ensuing repression, the German-Belarusian Society decided not to hold the Minsk Forum in Belarus for some time. In its place, it organized a similar yearly conference in Vilnius, though with smaller Belarusian participation.
The Minsk Forum came back to Minsk in 2016. But after the presidential election and the regime crackdown on protests in of 2020, the German-Belarusian Society decided not to cooperate with the Belarusian authorities anymore.
New Format, New Cities
In 2021, a new Minsk Forum format was created, with meetings outside Belarus and without representatives of the authorities. The event has been transformed into smaller meetings held in different cities. In 2022, the German-Belarusian Society decided to split the event into four parts—in Berlin, Kyiv, Vilnius, and Warsaw, but the event in Kyiv could not be held because of the war.
In 2023, the Minsk Forum was held in Berlin, Brussels, Vilnius, and Warsaw, in a new format. It used to be a classic conference with discussion panels where most of the participants were experts and just listened. Now, the organizers aim to make it more productive with workshops instead.
The format of working groups for all participants was used in Vilnius and Warsaw. Each group included about 20 persons working for six hours on a topic. At the end of the event, they presented the result to all participants.
In Brussels, the participating experts and representatives of different groups had an opportunity to communicate their concerns to EU policymakers. At the beginning of December, the main conference was held in Berlin in a traditional format.
Focused on Pro-Democracy Society
The format may change but the overarching aim of the Minsk Forum has remained consistent over time — to make it possible for Belarusian society to move toward becoming a European democracy. The difference lies only in the audience to which the event is oriented. The main partner has always been pro-democracy society, according to the German-Belarusian Society.
Up to 2020, it was also important to provide a channel for communication between German politicians, the non-regime pro-democracy society, and representatives of Lukashenka’s government. Since then, the organizers do not invite Belarusian officials as they are not considered in any way potential partners in the overarching aim. Instead, the Minsk Forum aims to facilitate dialogue between the wide-ranging actors within the Belarusian diaspora.
Limited awareness of the situation in Belarus among Western politicians is another issue the German-Belarusian Society has been addressing. It says this was a difficult task but that nonetheless the level of knowledge and understanding has risen over the last 20 years.