The Belarus-Polish border crisis has become the biggest challenge to the EU’s border in years. The standoff between migrants and the Polish border guards seems to have been fueled by Belarus’ tensions with the EU. Although some migrants have managed to cross into Poland from Belarus over the past couple of weeks, Poland has recently strengthened its border and closed crossings in response to the crisis. For the Poles and EU member states, the aforementioned crisis is seen as an artificial one created by Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, to get an advantage in the political game between the two.
Origins of the tensions
Since the beginning of November, there has been an influx of migrants from the Middle East [Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan] as well as other countries at the Belarus-Polish border. These migrants have been camped in the Białowieża Forest in freezing temperatures. According to a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Hanna Liubakova, “it’s a terrible situation” for those caught in the camps without food or proper clothing. Several migrants trapped at the border have died due to the freezing conditions.
Lukashenko’s regime has denied the charge that his administration has been actively encouraging migrants to come to Minsk, before pushing them to the border, encouraging them to clash with Polish authorities. The migrants have come to the border with the hopes that they will cross into Poland since Belarus is not a member of the EU. Poland being a member represents a doorway into the EU and the promise of a better life for these migrants. (BBC)
Although the number of migrants at the border is roughly 4.000, it has become the EU’s biggest border challenge since 2015, when hundreds of thousands of migrants crossed from Turkey into Europe. More than a million migrants were eventually allowed into the union as a result.
In the past week, Polish guards used water cannons and tear gas against stone-throwing migrants at the Kuznica-Bruzgi border crossing. Other scenes similar to this one have appeared on the border, supporting Lukashenko’s anti-EU agenda following the union’s sanctions imposed on his regime after the August 2020 elections. (New York Times)
Lukashenko’s hopes and aims
For more than 25 years, Lukashenko has remained the leader of Belarus, returning for a sixth-term as president in a vote which is widely considered fraudulent.
In May, Belarus forced an international flight to land in the capital of Belarus, Minsk, in order to apprehend Roman Prostasevich, a journalist, former editor and founder of an opposition blog and social media channel. The outrageous act prompted the EU to impose retaliatory sanctions. Shortly after, Alexander Lukashenko hinted at the ability for Belarus to quickly stir up a migrant crisis against the neighboring EU member states — Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
“Lukashenko wants to show his revenge for sanctions,” says Liubakova of the Eurasia Center. But the leader also wants to switch the discussion from political prisoners, torture and repression under his rule to something external, she says: “he wants to refocus the situation and force the West to see the crisis at the border and ignore the human rights situation in Belarus.” The aim of this is to try to begin discussions and lift the sanctions. Lukashenko understands the leverage he can acquire through force, and believes that through this he can forcefully restore bilateral dialogue. (Inews)
What can Poland and the EU do?
The EU has planned additional sanctions against Belarus as a response to the crisis. Considering the fact that the entire causal factor of this manufactured crisis are the sanctions, the EU should be wary of what it does next.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel managed to have a discussion with Lukashenko on Monday, the 15th of November. This rare phone call between the two leaders allowed Lukashenko to secure dialogue with the EU. Germany would most likely receive the highest influx of new immigrants if the Polish border opened up, therefore, it was prudent for Merkel to negotiate. Their talks seem to have been successful since new reports have emerged, stating that Belarus is putting migrants on buses to be transported out of the area. Additionally, in an effort to further de-escalate the situation, Merkel spoke with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, asking him to use his leverage on Lukashenko. So, Lukashenko has succeeded in re-opening dialogue, but it’s unclear where that might lead, given continued international distaste for his authoritarian tactics. (New York Times)
However, now there is the question of where the migrants will go. According to international law, the European Union and Poland are obligated to hear the case of asylum seekers. As Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council says, “both sides of this abject power play should take responsibility for these migrants, who are vulnerable people. Belarus and Russia have to stop using them as pawns on some kind of a chessboard.” (Inews)