What is behind the crisis on the Belarusian border?

  • By:karen-millen



Thousands of people seeking to enter the European Union remain concentrated on the Belarusian border with Poland. In this interview, Crisis Group expert Oleg Ignatov explains how the events relate to tensions between Belarus and its ally, Russia, on the one hand, and Western governments on the other.

What happens at the border between Belarus and Poland?

Since late summer, women, men and children – mostly Kurds from northern Iraq – have gathered on the Polish-Belarussian border. They hope to cross into the EU through Poland and, in most cases, to Germany, where many have relatives or acquaintances. In the past month, most of the migrants have camped near the Bruzgi Kuznica crossing in Belarus's Grodno region. Poland has refused to let them pass into its territory and has declared a state of emergency in its border areas. Brussels has backed Warsaw. (“Migrant” refers here to the entire transient population at the border, without making value judgments about how it is broken down into refugees, economic migrants, and others. While some reports suggest a significant portion of economic migrants among this population, others indicate that it includes refugees).

By late fall, the situation on the border was tense and increasingly dire in humanitarian terms. In recent weeks, migrants have clashed with Polish border guards, the former throwing stones and trying to break through fences, the latter responding with water cannons and tear gas. With most of the migrants living in tents, and with children and several pregnant women among them, the approaching winter cold will soon deepen the crisis, if it continues. Red Cross has already reported at least ten deaths on the border between Poland and Belarus. The Belarusian authorities have placed some of the most vulnerable people in a special logistics center, where they receive warm clothes and food, although an outbreak of Covid-19 has been reported in the center. Iraqi authorities are also helping several hundred migrants who have accepted the offer to travel back to Iraq.

An earlier stage of the crisis unfolded on Lithuania's border with Belarus in the spring. Migrants, mainly from Iraqi Kurdistan, concentrated in Grodno, with illegal crossings increasing from dozens to hundreds in June and hundreds to thousands in July. Despite the efforts of the Lithuanian authorities to deny entry, more than 4,000 crossed the border in 2021 (up from 81 in 2020), prompting Vilnius to declare a state of emergency and tighten the border. Migrants also gathered at Belarus's border with Latvia, which followed Lithuania's example by declaring a state of emergency and tightening border security.

Who is behind the crisis?

There is little doubt that the Belarusian authorities are fomenting the crisis.

It has been widely reported that Minsk is making it easier for people from the Middle East to travel to Belarus, and then to the Polish border. Belarusian authorities have formally simplified tourist visa procedures for citizens of several countries, loosened them informally in other cases, and refused to expel visa overstayers. The number of direct flights from Iraq, Syria and the United Arab Emirates to Belarus has more than doubled, including Syrian and Iraqi charter flights. The Belarusian guards have done nothing to prevent the passage to Poland; indeed, reports suggest that the guards have furthered these efforts, escorting large groups to the border and perhaps even pushing them across. In October, the Belarusian authorities suspended an agreement with the EU that required Minsk to readmit third-country nationals who had crossed into EU member states but had been refused entry. The Polish Ministry of Defense claims that Belarusian soldiers orchestrate all events on the border.

Belarus makes no secret that it will not block anyone trying to enter the EU, but it blames others for the situation. He claims that the crisis is the result of failed Western Middle East policy, and accuses the EU and member states of violating humanitarian principles – including their own commitments under various UN and EU instruments – to allow people to seek asylum.

Why is Belarus doing this? Is working?

Minsk seems to believe that the crisis will allow it to win concessions from the EU and its member states. He has drawn an analogy between the current situation and the border crisis between Greece and Turkey in 2015. In that crisis, more than a million refugees from the Syrian war entered the EU, and Brussels reached an agreement with Ankara to stop further entries. . He promised to contribute 6,000 million euros in exchange for Ankara agreeing to prevent migrants from leaving its territory. Although the parallel with Turkey is unconvincing – Belarus, unlike Turkey, is not a neighbor of conflict-affected countries – Minsk is trying to strike a deal of its own.

Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko wants the EU to recognize him as president and ease economic sanctions that have squeezed the Belarusian economy. These issues became sticking points after Lukashenko ordered an unprecedented and often violent crackdown on opposition members and protesters following the August 9, 2020 presidential election. Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, said having won that contest with more than 80% of the votes.

¿Qué hay detrás de la crisis en la frontera bielorrusa?

The EU, US, UK and Canada refused to recognize Lukashenko's victory due to tampering evidence. Together with Switzerland and Norway, they imposed sanctions – in the case of the EU, four packages – targeting a wide range of individual officials and sectors of the Belarusian economy, including Belarusian exports to the EU and the UK. To justify the sanctions, they pointed to a series of human rights violations, such as Minsk's violent crackdown on civil society, the democratic opposition and journalists. The toughest sanctions are those that affect Belarus's main exports: petroleum products and potash fertilizers. In addition to these measures, after Belarus diverted a Ryanair plane en route to Lithuania in May 2021 to arrest a dissident on board, the EU banned Belarusian airlines from accessing EU airports and closed them. Community airspace. Western officials have called the incident an act of "state piracy."

Before lifting the sanctions they have imposed, Western states are demanding that Lukashenko end the repression, free political prisoners and start a dialogue with the opposition on new elections, steps that the Belarusian leader considers equivalent to abandoning power.

The sanctions are already hurting Belarus and are about to do a lot more damage. New US sanctions against Belarus's largest fertilizer producer, Beloruskali, will take effect in December. Taken together, the new and old sanctions could lead to a complete halt of exports from Belarus to and through the EU. Minsk estimates that the damages from the current sanctions amount to 2.9% of GDP. Some experts believe that if new sanctions are imposed, Belarus's losses could exceed 7.5% of GDP per year. The EU is due to adopt a fifth sanctions package shortly, and the border crisis has prompted European officials to threaten additional measures.

In his speeches, Lukashenko has said that the immigrant crisis will end when the West comes to its senses, stops strangling the Belarusian economy and negotiates. In any case, he has managed to get European leaders to talk to him. On November 14, the Belarusian Foreign Minister, Vladimir Makei, spoke by telephone with the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. The next day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Lukashenko. Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets reported that, during the call with Merkel, Lukashenko demanded to be recognized as president and the lifting of all sanctions. However, Minsk denied this version. Two days later, on November 17, the EU announced that it would allocate 700,000 euros to emergency aid for refugees on the Belarusian border.

What is Russia's role in the crisis?

Although some European officials are convinced that Moscow is driving the crisis behind the scenes, there is no reliable evidence that Russia is directly involved in orchestrating the events or moving the migrants.

Yet European leaders have been quick to point to Moscow's involvement. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said that Lukashenko is following the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Poland also believes that Russia has helped would-be EU immigrants to enter Belarus, including by flying them on Russia's state-owned airline Aeroflot. The President of Lithuania has claimed that people from the Middle East are entering Belarus through Moscow. Russia has denied all these accusations and has responded angrily to news that the EU is considering imposing sanctions on Aeroflot.

Although it is not helping with the transport of migrants, Russia has consistently supported Lukashenko throughout this episode and has promoted his arguments. Russian officials have also been at pains to argue that Western responses to the crisis are hypocritical. Moscow claims that European capitals talk about human rights, but refuse to take in people they describe as refugees and even use water cannons to prevent their entry.

Putin has also urged direct dialogue between Lukashenko and European countries, and has offered to facilitate it. In fact, Putin and Merkel spoke at length before the latter spoke with Lukashenko. Moscow has also suggested that the EU respond to Belarus as it did to Turkey in 2016, when it provided billions in aid to support millions of refugees in Turkey instead of allowing them to cross over to EU states. “Why can't the Belarusians, who have certain needs, be helped in the same way so that the refugees, whom Poland and Lithuania in no way want to let into their territory, can somehow live in normal conditions? ”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked.

Russia has its own reasons for wanting a change in Western policy towards Belarus that would entail recognition of Lukashenko and the lifting of sanctions. One of them is economic: to help it overcome its current difficulties, Russia has been supporting Belarus and its economy, and the relaxation of sanctions would allow the Kremlin to reduce its spending. Russia's political tensions with the West also play a role in his calculations. The Kremlin sees the West's pressure on Lukashenko as aimed at changing the leadership in Minsk, and believes this pressure is part of a broader effort to destabilize and increase Western influence in Russia's periphery and by extension in Russia itself. Russia.

Could things go further?

They could, but there's also a chance they'll settle. Although Lukashenko seeks talks and recognition, he too has framed his struggle to stay in power as a struggle with the West. He describes all opposition to his rule as the product of a Western-backed international conspiracy. He frames Western sanctions as a consequence of the conflict with the EU, and stokes fears of NATO aggression to justify the crackdown and consolidate his control over the security apparatus, on which his government has increasingly relied since August 2020.

In this context, Lukashenko has so far been willing to escalate tensions with the West in pursuit of his goals. On November 11, he threatened to cut off Russian natural gas exports to Europe, which go through a pipeline through Belarus. This was in response to new EU sanctions and declarations by Poland that it may completely close the border with Belarus. Putin was quick to intervene, noting that Belarus's blocking of gas transit to Europe "would be a violation of our transit contract," indicating that Russian support, however consistent, has its limits. However, Belarus cut oil supplies to Poland on November 17 due to unscheduled maintenance and cut electricity to Ukraine the next day. Warsaw, for its part, demanded that Minsk stabilize the situation on the border by November 21, threatening that if it did not, Poland would close the Kuznica railway checkpoint. On November 21, Poland also threatened to close the border completely.

Also worrying is the tendency of all parties to militarize their responses to the crisis. Poland's 20,000-strong deployment to its border with Belarus includes both soldiers and border guards. On November 10 and 11, the Russian Defense Ministry sent two Tu-22M3 long-range bombers and two Tu-160 bombers, respectively, to patrol over Belarus. The next day, Moscow deployed a unit of paratroopers for exercises in Belarus's Grodno region, which borders Poland and Lithuania, ostensibly as part of a quick inspection of the unit's combat readiness. In parallel, British military engineers arrived at the Polish-Belarussian border to help reinforce the barriers. British media have reported that London is willing to send an additional 400 to 600 troops to Poland. Ukraine has also sent some 8,500 soldiers and police to its border with Belarus, and Estonia is sending about 100.

That said, these deployments are unlikely to lead to armed clashes. It is true that a worsening of the already very tense situation in Ukraine between Moscow, on the one hand, and kyiv and its Western partners, on the other, could spill over into the confrontation in Belarus. In the short term, however, any escalation is more likely to be economic and diplomatic. Furthermore, with dialogue between Minsk and European capitals underway, and with some would-be migrants en route back to Iraq, there is hope that things will calm down. At the same time, Lukashenko's insistence that sanctions be eased or lifted without releasing prisoners, entering into talks with his opponents, or meeting Western conditions, will almost certainly prevent any real agreement on friction between him and the US. and EU leaders. Even if some migrants return to Iraq and other countries in the short term, the crisis could resume if Minsk tries to turn up the pressure again.

What is the solution?

There are no easy answers. Not only are Minsk's demands unacceptable to Western powers, but Lukashenko, along with Moscow, is likely to interpret any concession as proof that his strategy is working. Although it seems that there are people fleeing war, violence or repression among those on the border, the EU countries, despite their international obligations, are united in supporting Polish efforts to prevent the entry. In his eyes, to allow entry would be to succumb to a crisis manufactured by the Belarusian leader. Still, as difficult as it is to find solutions, it is worthwhile for Western governments to talk to Minsk.

Although Minsk and Moscow see the dialogue as a way to obtain concessions from the West, it does not have to be that way. In fact, the EU has already started a dialogue with Lukashenko without signaling any intention to lift sanctions or formally recognize the Belarusian president unless he meets the EU's conditions. At the same time, it has sent help for people in danger near the border. This mix of political commitment and humanitarian support appears to be having some positive effect on the border situation. In the short term, the objectives of European states should, at a minimum, be to ensure that people can return home safely and do not face undue hardship. Lukashenko faces his own limitations: he is limited in the Russian support he enjoys and in his own country's ability to support large numbers of people from the Middle East and other war-torn countries.

If the EU and other states hope to change Lukashenko's behaviour, in addition to dialogue, they will need to clearly link any new sanctions or threatened sanctions to very specific actions that Minsk can take to ensure they are lifted or prevented. In the meantime, however, they must be prepared for more provocations and challenges.

Article published in English on the Crisis Group website.


What is behind the crisis on the Belarusian border?
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