After rigging the elections in 2020, A. Lukashenka has decided to retaliate against his harshest critics – Lithuania, Latvia and Poland – by organising migration routes through the eastern EU border. E&M author Anna Costante argues that the EU is not doing enough to help.
Following the results of the last presidential election on 9 August 2020, large protests began in Belarus against Lukashenka’s supposed win, which was shaped by electoral fraud. One year after the elections, the protests have not calmed down. Everyday, citizens of Minsk and other Belarussian cities are demonstrating against the government – in an increasingly decentralized way.
Local authorities continue to suppress the protests and, day after day, human rights activists and journalists are detained by OMON special units and the KGB. Political prisoners are tortured in order to force them to make confessions on state television. Throughout this process right in the geographical centre of Europe, we are witnessing unprecedented violations of human rights on European soil. Many events have shocked the European and international community, such as the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger plane resulting in the arrest of oppositional blogger Raman Pratasevic; the imposed repatriation of the Belarusian Olympic athlete Krystina Tsismanouskaya due to some critical comments addressed to her coaching team, and the death of Vitaly Shishov, the head of Belarussian exiles in Ukraine, which pointed out that even neighbouring countries are not safe for the exiled Belarusians; and the last recent development was the jail sentence of 11 and 10 years to the opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava, and to a lawyer Maksim Znak.
In reaction to the Ryanair jet hijacking, the European Council immediately decided to impose the fourth and so far largest sanctions’ package affecting the Belarusian economy, especially targeting the imports of oil products, potash and tobacco.
Lukashenka’s revenge was to suspend Belarus’ participation from the Eastern Partnership program (EaP) and ask the head of the EU’s delegation in Belarus to leave the country. The purpose was to hit Europe’s Achille heel: to stop helping the EU-27 to manage migratory flows and to open a new migration route.
New Route to Europe via Minsk-2 International Airport
During the pandemic, there has been a heated discussion about the vast influx of immigrants through the Balkan countries and Southern Europe. Starting from June 2021, the new route for refugees is mainly going through the Belarusian-Lithuanian border as well as the Belarusian-Polish and Belarusian-Latvian border. In the last two months, the number of immigrants has been remarkable, as it reached more than 1000 people per month compared to 81 for the whole last year. The majority of migrants are from the Middle East (Iraq and Syria) and Africa, where people try to escape from deteriorating humanitarian circumstances.
Following the EU’s decision to ban flights to Belarus, all connections with the West have suffered immediate arrest. Yet, this led to a turn to Russia and the Middle East: the Belarusian state airline Belava now offers direct flights from Iraq and Turkey to Minsk. Moreover, as stated by the Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, there are travel agencies in Belarus that attract refugees to come to Minsk and help them to make their way to the Lithuanian border. Of course, the crisis has also a Lithuanian domestic dimension, in which the government occupies a conservative position on the refugee issue in order to respect the interests of the rather conservative electorate in Lithuania.
It’s clear that Lukashenka is using the migrants as a double-edged weapon, especially against Lithuania, which is the first country that condemned the fraudulent election in August 2020, which has always supported the democratic movement in Belarus and is host to a large number of Belarusian political refugees.
Initially, Vilnius welcomed the migrants until problems were starting to arise at the border: riots in refugee camps and protests by local residents. As the small Baltic country could not deal with this new migration flow on its own, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), positioned 100 officers on the borders and called for more support from other EU member states and other neighbouring countries. Despite this support, the situation was deteriorating in the months of July to August as the number of migrants crossing the international borders was rising on a daily basis. Admittedly, the situation calmed down a bit in September, however, the crisis might boil up again with the upcoming cold winter months and unsolved humanitarian circumstances. Therefore, Lithuania decided to build a wire fence in order to halt this influx and the border guards changed tactics and began pushing migrants back to Belarus, which is illegal because it violates the prohibition of collective expulsions imposed by the European Convention on Human Rights and is going against democratic principles on which the European Union is based. Lukashenka’s response regarding the decision of the Lithuanian government could not be missed, describing his eastern neighbours as fascist.
Furthermore, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis called his Turkish and Iraqi counterparts to stop the flights to Belarus, to identify migrants and contain entrances. In reaction to the pressure from the European Union, Iraqi airlines announced the suspension of flights to Belarus and the repatriation of Iraqi nationals in mid-July. This decision by the Iraqi government has been a relief for the EU, yet, Lukashenka is now ready to increase the number of weekly flights from Turkey. We are clearly witnessing a game of chess that is leading to a dangerous escalation of events.
As Lithuania hardens its border, the migrant flow has changed its path and is increasing day by day on the Belarusian – Polish and Belarusian – Latvian borders. Latvia is the second country to be hit by the record numbers of immigration and declared a state of emergency, starting to push back the migrants on the borders into the neutral zone. From a Polish point of view, the record numbers at their border to Belarus could be understood as Lukashenka’s revenge after Warsaw’s decision to give a humanitarian visa to athlete Krystina Tsimanouskaya. Moreover, Poland declared a state of emergency in the two bordering regions with Belarus – Podlasie and Lublin provinces, which are the first of its kind since 1989. From now on, movement of citizens around the border is severely restricted, which, of course, limits the work of journalists and human rights organisations. As in the case of Lithuania, Poland’s case is an inner-conflict between protecting its own border against non-EU members and maintaining democratic and humane conditions, after all, Poland and Lithuania are not Belarus and should have a more humanitarian policy than their eastern neighbour.
Hybrid warfare against the EU
This is clearly a hybrid warfare against Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, using migrants as a weapon against the EU, exploiting the gray area between peace, crisis and war. Europe has always struggled with its own asylum policies and reception of migrants, due to the growth of right-wing parties’ popularity in the EU. Furthermore, in this case, Lukashenka highlights how the neighbouring countries are also ‘discriminating’ human beings: why do you welcome Belarusian refugees while other refugees are not welcomed?
This shows the weakness not only of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland but all of the European Union, which is failing in helping and protecting migrants. It was Lukahshenka’s plan to undermine their credibility and at the same time strengthen his state propaganda calling them ‘fascist’ for how they are treating migrants.
But, with this hybrid warfare between Europe and Belarus we are forgetting that, behind all of this, there are human lives. While state authorities from both sides are fighting for their policies, fundamental human rights of many people are at risk. Lukashenka’s sneaky move to take advantage of migrants, who are in serious trouble, has triggered a major debate in the EU. While the routes via the Balkan and the Mediterranean Sea are still the main routes for refugees, this new flow puts even more pressure on the EU to come up with a common answer to Belarus’ aggression.
It is known that the issue of migratory flows is one of the weaknesses of a common European policy, due to the diverging ideas of the member states, especially regarding where all migrants have to be resettled. Europe has a new challenge to face: will it protect human rights or will it fall into Lukashenka’s trap?