Human rights activists are complaining that the German government, which restricts diplomatic ties with Belarus due to its human rights situation, still buy its police uniforms from Europe's last dictatorship.
Ordering from Belarus saves the police money
At a roadside spot-check in the German state of Hesse, the police officers are stopping cars to see if they're roadworthy. They're fulfilling their duty to keep law and order, but human right activists complain that their uniforms come from a country where democracy and the rule of law have no place.
That's because Europe's last dictatorship supplies uniforms for German police officers. Their shirts have been made in the textile factories of Belarus for the past ten years. Production head Olga Trusjevitsch proudly says they are working on a commission from Lower Saxony for several thousand shirts right now. The order will be ready in a week.
More than a thousand women work in this garment factory in Dzerzhinsk, from early morning to late at night. They earn 120 euros a month and make shirts that cost German police officers an average of nine euros each -- an unbeatable price. But human rights activists find these business dealings with Alexander Lukashenko's dictatorship infuriating.
"The state of human rights in Belarus has been extremely bad for a very long time," said Christa Nickels who heads the German parliament's human rights committee. "In March, the European Parliament established again that human rights are trampled on there, that Lukashenko controls the economy, that both non-governmental organizations and the political opposition are bullied, harassed and their members arrested without cause. It's really desolate."
Business benefiting a dictator?
A terrible record of human rights: democracy activists in March beaten
That doesn't seem to bother the customers in Germany. The factory management says the police in all 16 German states, as well as customs and border guards and even the German army, the Bundeswehr, order shirts sewn in Belarus.
Such orders benefit Alexander Lukashenko as well. He has complete control over the economy and the country. The Bundeswehr, customs authorities and police know that, of course -- but cheap uniforms are more important. The parliament of Belarus doesn't deserve the name. Opponents incur Lukashenko's wrath -- like a police general the dictator is punishing at the moment.
In Dzerzhinsk, where the shirts are sewn, there's an atmosphere of fear. The city is named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, who founded the Bolshevist secret police -- a role model for Lukashenko.
Fear reigns in the factory as well. People here say they could do much more business if Belarus weren't ruled by a dictator like Alexander Lukashenko. The factory director says so as well.
"It does interfere with business," said Vassily Romanov of the Eliz Garment Factory. "We could attract all sorts of other orders to our country if the situation were different from what it is now."
But then he stops talking, and cuts short the interview.
No one takes responsibility
Alexander Lukashenko tolerates no dissent
The German police, customs and army purchase the shirts. What do the customs authorities have to say about these dubious dealings? The German Finance Ministry is responsible for customs administration. It says setting restrictions would violate the terms of allocation of funding. The German Defense Ministry, prefers not to address the matter.
For Nickels, it's completely contradictory for Germany to freeze political relations with Belarus and buy uniforms from it at the same time.
"I would strongly advise and urge that the German states check to what extent they can freeze contracts until there's an improvement in human rights -- and of course to make clear to this dictator that these orders will be lost if the state of human rights is not drastically improved," said Nickels.
Sanctions rarely used
Martin Knapp from the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce says such measures would put the two countries' good economic relations at risk. He points to the fact that many large German corporations operate in Belarus, and says many of them could get into difficulties.
"Of course, the world of international politics does have sanctions and trade embargoes as tools," he said. "But as usually, international institutions such as the EU and the United Nations use these instruments very sparingly."
One of the priorities of the Belarus embassy in Berlin is to attract foreign investors to the country and Belarus ambassador Vladimir Skvorzov strongly opposes economic sanctions.
"I'm against any form of sanctions, no matter in what area," he said."Bans have never accomplished anything. If we really were to go in that direction, Germany would sustain substantial losses as well."
He also indirectly pointed out that any such measures would likely have little effect on Lukashenko: "It would hit the people who work in the factories the hardest."