On Thursday, Germany’s cultural Goethe Institute issued a short press statement announcing that it had been asked to cease its Belarus activities. It was clear that they were taken by surprise.
“This is an unprecedented step for the Goethe Institute, which can freely work in its 157 institutes across the world,” the organization’s secretary-general, Johannes Ebert, said on Thursday. He said Minsk’s decision was regrettable, and expressed hope that the educational and cultural body would soon be able to resume its work.
Ebert also expressed solidarity with his “colleagues on the ground” and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which has also been asked to suspend its Belarus operations. It has published a similarly worded press release.
German lawmakers lambast Minsk
Belarus announced the ban on Wednesday evening. A spokesperson with Germany’s Foreign Ministry said the move will “further isolate Belarus internationally.”
Jürgen Hardt, a foreign policy expert with Germany’s Christian Democrats, told DW that “[President Alexander] Lukashenko is apparently backed up against the wall.” Belarus citizens, he added, are rising up against Lukashenko, while the strongman is trying to isolate his country so his people cannot access outside information. Hardt said Lukashenko does not want his people learning German and watching German television. This, he said, amounts to a bizarre attempt at stabilizing his regime.
Erhard Grundl, a lawmaker with Germany’s Greens, was similarly saddened by Minsk’s move. “In times like these, projecting soft power through cultural foreign policy carries great importance.” Grundl said that the Goethe Institute was a “voice for freedom.”
Tit for tat
The move against both German organizations comes after the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus after it forced a Ryanair passenger plane to land in Minsk in late May. Dissident blogger Roman Protasevich was taken off the plane and arrested. Belarus has also left the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative.
Germany’s DAAD, which has had an office in the Belarusian capital since 2003, provides information to locals about studying and researching in Germany. The forced closure means six DAAD editors, who currently work at Belarusian universities, will have to leave the country.
Virtual events continue
The Goethe Institute set up shop in Minsk in 1993. It runs a library, a reading room in Wizebsk, and it operates a bus delivering German-language media and information about the country to Belarusians across the country.
The organizations employs dozens of people, most of them locals. German language classes are very popular, along with cultural events such as lectures, readings and film screenings. But the coronavirus pandemic has meant that all of these events have been online only.
A talk format hosted by the Goethe Institute on Zoom centers around the theme of “literature in difficult times,” featuring novelists and poets from Belarus and Hong Kong, discussing their creative processes. Belarus and Hong Kong, after all, have experienced large anti-government protests lately. Belarusian novelist Viktor Martinowitsch, whose recent work Revolution is popular with the opposition, is part of the line-up.
It is not clear at this stage how soon the Goethe Institute and German Academic Exchange Service will have to close down their Belarus offices, or what will come next. Both organizations may intensify their work in neighboring Russia and Ukraine, hoping to service Belarus from abroad. A Goethe Institute spokesperson told DW “virtual language courses will remain available to everyone, regardless of their location.”
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