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The EU’s migrant crisis: will Belarus achieve its goal?

There are no signs that anyone in the EU is ready to bow to Lukashenko’s pressure. There’s no reason to do so. In the worst-case scenario, the EU will end up with a few thousand extra refugees: a drop in the ocean.

Images of crowds of refugees and migrants at EU borders may be a common occurrence, but there’s something very different about the current scenes at the border between Poland and Belarus. For those people were helped to get there not by human traffickers or other organized crime gangs, but by none other than the Belarusian authorities. For this reason, the EU cannot let them in. What would in other circumstances be a humanitarian act would, in this case, amount to pandering to a dictator and giving in to blackmail.

The Belarusian authorities, however, are not known for giving up without a fight, either. And since Belarus is Russia’s closest ally, and Poland is an active member of NATO, if the sides become too zealous about performing their duties as allies, the consequences could be tragic. Still, while the intransigence of both Minsk and Warsaw leaves little hope that the tension at the border will be defused any time soon, its escalation into a Europe-wide conflict is also unlikely, for many reasons.

For a start, only three or four thousand refugees have gathered at the border over the last few months. That may seem like a lot to Poland and Lithuania, which are not used to such scenes, but many other EU countries would consider it a relief to be dealing with numbers on that scale compared to their own, far greater, migration crises.

The tension at the Poland-Belarus border is due, therefore, not so much to any real problems that a few thousand refugees could create (no one would even notice if they were allowed to join the many other new arrivals in the EU), as to the fact that it is in the interests of both countries’ leaderships to make a big deal out of the crisis.

For Poland’s conservative Law and Justice government, the crisis at the border with Belarus offers a rare opportunity to improve its standing both at home and abroad. It can mobilize its conservative support base by waging a war on migration, and burnish its damaged democratic credentials in the West by posing as a frontline defender of Europe from a hybrid threat from the east. This latter aspect, it hopes, will eclipse both U.S. complaints with regard to media freedoms in Poland, and EU fines over Poland’s legal reforms and unwillingness to decrease its use of coal.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, on the other hand, cannot use the crisis to boost his popularity, but that was not his main aim. For years, he had made threats in response to EU sanctions that he would open Belarus’s borders to the uncontrolled flow of migrants, drugs, and contraband that Minsk had supposedly been holding in check. This summer, he apparently decided to make good on those threats. Journalists have uncovered plenty of evidence that the Belarusian authorities have been actively helping and encouraging migrants to head to the borders with Poland and Lithuania.

It would appear that a major motivation for Lukashenko is revenge: Poland and Lithuania have led the charge within the EU for severing ties with Minsk and slapping new sanctions on Belarus. Since they are both known for their hostile views on migration, what better way to punish them?

Releasing a stream of migrants from the Middle East was intended to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the Polish and Lithuanian leaderships, which had been so critical of Minsk for its brutal repression of protesters and widespread violation of human rights.

It was also designed to force the EU to resume dialogue with Minsk, after years of gradual rapprochement were obliterated by the political crisis that erupted following the contested Belarusian presidential election of August 2020. Belarus went from being a contributor to regional stability to a pariah, and its multilateral foreign policy was shattered.

Lukashenko is using the only language he understands—force—to try to reopen dialogue with the EU. The Belarusian authorities keep repeating that the only way to solve the refugee crisis is to talk to them. Then, of course, in exchange for stopping the flow of people, Minsk can ask for sanctions to be lifted, Lukashenko’s victory in the election to be recognized, and so on.

But it hasn’t all gone to plan for Minsk. Poland and Lithuania have not come under fierce criticism over their treatment of the migrants. Any censure is outweighed by the West’s unanimous insistence that Lukashenko must not be allowed to use them to blackmail his EU neighbors. Belarus looks set to be hit in coming weeks with new sanctions, and even greater isolation from the West—which raises inevitable questions about the role of Russia in all of this.

Poland has openly accused Moscow of stoking the crisis and capitalizing on it. Belarus’s increasing isolation from the West makes it even more dependent on Russia, while the EU looks helpless, hypocritical, and unable to help its member states. Despite plenty of proof emerging of the Belarusian authorities’ involvement in creating the migrant crisis, however, no evidence has yet surfaced to support Poland’s claims of Russian involvement.

In any case, Lukashenko’s primary objective was to force the EU to resume a dialogue with Minsk: i.e., to restore at least some element of Belarus’s multilateral foreign policy and reduce its dependence on Russia. Why would Moscow support Minsk in such an undertaking?

The saga over closer integration between Russia and Belarus, which degenerated into empty rhetoric, showed once again that Lukashenko is still fully in control of Belarus’s state apparatus, and that he retains considerable autonomy in decisionmaking. For him, the migration crisis is a way of leveraging more room for foreign policy maneuvering by reducing his dependence on Russia. So even in the unlikely event that Moscow wanted to step in to help Poland and Lithuania, a reprimand from the Kremlin would clearly not be enough to force the Belarusian leadership to drop its efforts to force the EU to the table.

The fact is that any spike in tensions in Eastern Europe automatically leads to a deterioration in relations between Russia and the West, even if Moscow has played no direct part in it. No one understands that better than Minsk. Before the fateful 2020 election, Lukashenko believed that stability in the region was a boost to his power, and so positioned himself as a guarantor of that stability by calling on all sides to engage in dialogue. Now the political crisis at home has reversed that logic. The greater the tension in the region, the more active Moscow has to be in supporting Lukashenko, and the more the confrontation with the West obscures the differences between the Kremlin and the Belarusian leader.

Unlike the migration crisis, this tactic by the Belarusian leadership works every time. Moscow has stepped up to support Minsk, without passing up the opportunity to take a jab at the West for its hypocrisy and unilateral interventions in the Middle East. The Kremlin has also condoned Lukashenko’s attempt to portray a training mission of Russian strategic bombers over Belarus as the two countries’ joint response to the refugee crisis.

There are no signs that anyone in the EU is ready to bow to Lukashenko’s pressure. There’s no reason to do so. In the worst-case scenario, the EU will end up with a few thousand extra refugees: a drop in the ocean. Migrants from the Middle East may not be welcomed by everyone in Poland and Lithuania, but as the people trapped at the border say themselves, their target destination is Germany.

It’s unlikely that the crisis could escalate into an armed confrontation: the stakes are too low for anyone to take that risk. What’s more likely is that the EU will respond with new sanctions against Belarus, security will be tightened at the Polish border, and efforts will be made to engage the countries of origin of the migrants. It probably won’t force Lukashenko to relent, but it will limit the number of new refugees arriving, and turn the crisis into a simmering problem that could go on for years, just as it has in the Balkans, Italy, and around the Spanish enclaves in Morocco. There, enormous border fences make a mockery of Poland’s improvised defenses, and the migrants are more persistent, sometimes even aggressive, yet it has long been seen as part of everyday life, rather than as an emergency that could lead to an armed conflict.

Maxim Samorukov