Crisis at the border
More and more often, decisions taken by the government of one country or the outcome of its political elections have consequences not only for the citizens of that country, but also for the lives of people living in other nations. An example of this is the crisis that has erupted between Belarus and the European Union. The presidential elections in 2020 were contested in unfair circumstances by the Belarusian opposition, and the European Union also expressed serious concerns. Now a complex scenario has emerged up that is not easy to resolve.
The reconfirmation in office of President Alexander Lukashenko – the longest-serving autocrat in Europe, in power since 1994 – presents us with a situation that we have unfortunately already experienced. The political opposition does not accept the result of the elections; protests are organized; a period of insecurity follows, but in the end those in power prevail; opposition leaders are put in prison, or, as in the case of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s challenger, exiled. Concerned Western nations end up applying sanctions, which the person at the head of the government believes can be coped with and endured. This is what has happened in Belarus, except in one respect. Lukashenko was convinced that he had the “means” to force the European Union to accept his position: migrants.
The Belarusian president has used the same method as his Turkish counterpart, Erdoğan, who in 2015 successfully exploited the migrant drama in negotiations with the EU. However, Turkey is on the main migration route from the Middle East to the EU. This is not the case with Belarus. A little “help” was needed to direct the flow of migrants through this country.
On May 23, 2021, a Ryanair plane, which was headed from Greece to Lithuania over Belarus, with Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich on board, was forced to land at Minsk airport so that the activist could be arrested, along with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. In response, a month later, on June 21, the EU, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom threatened sanctions against individuals and companies linked to the Belarusian government. The EU banned companies operating under the Belarusian flag, including Belavia, from flying over its airspace. Because of this decision, many planes were grounded, and suddenly became useful for other purposes: transporting migrants to Belarus from the Middle East, especially from Iraq. It should be noted, however, that already at the beginning of May 2021, that is, before the incident involving the Ryanair plane, the number of flights from Baghdad to Minsk had doubled.
It was evident that the operation was carefully planned. Both Belarusian and Iraqi tourist companies were involved in organizing the flights to Belarus. The latter significantly reduced the price of travel to Belarus. It is accepted that the promotion and advertising related to the cost of such popular tickets was organized and directed by Belarusian government agencies. A journalist from a Russian newspaper writes that flights from Baghdad to Minsk were packed, as opposed to return flights, which were almost empty. In addition to Baghdad, planes also took off from other Iraqi cities: Basra, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah.
From then on, Iraqis could simply receive a Belarusian visa directly at the airport in Minsk. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, all types of visas had been abolished, except for commercial or hunting visas. Suddenly Belarus was filled with “hunters.”
Iraq was not the only country from which migrants came to Belarus wanting to enter the EU: in October, flights were also organized from Syria. In November, new flights were planned between Minsk and Algeria, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Morocco, Venezuela and Vietnam. All those arriving were told that their journey from Belarus to the EU was perfectly legal. It is estimated that they paid up to 15,000 euros for travel and visas. The result of all this is that many thousands of people have arrived in Belarus, hoping to make it into the EU.
In the first half of 2021, the number of illegal crossings between Belarus and Lithuania had risen to 90, compared with 5 recorded in 2020. On May 26, Lukashenko openly declared that Belarus would stop preventing illegal migration to Europe. This was by no means an empty threat: already by June the number of attempts to cross the border between Belarus and the EU had increased significantly, amounting to even to hundreds in a single day. On June 28, in response to the EU sanctions of June 21, Belarus abandoned the “Eastern Partnership,” announcing its intention to withdraw from the treaty by which it had committed to host migrants who had managed to enter the EU illegally (although de facto the country had not observed these agreements for months).
In July and August the situation worsened, so much so that Lithuania (on July 2), Latvia (on August 10) and Poland (on September 2) declared a state of emergency on their borders with Belarus. This means that neither journalists nor humanitarian organizations have access to these areas. The EU countries bordering Belarus – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – at the beginning of the crisis tried to accept at least a relatively small number of migrants, but now they have blocked any kind of crossing and sent back all those who managed to cross the border. In the border regions fences were erected and police (even military) were deployed. Representatives of the EU began to denounce the “hybrid aggression” on the part of the Lukashenko regime.
For the Belarusian autocrat, migrants were not only a “means” of response to EU sanctions, but also a business ploy with immediate effects. The money paid by those people did not only go to the tourist companies (conceivably owned or controlled by the government), but also directly to the state coffers.
The crisis escalated further on November 8, when 8,000 people, after being escorted to the border with Poland by Belarusian security agents, tried to cross it without success. They camped along the border, and slowly more people arrived. The lack of health care and the unbearable cold soon made it clear that we were facing a dramatic humanitarian crisis.
Similar attempts at mass border breakthroughs were repeated on November 15 and 16. Under the surveillance and logistical organization of the Belarusian security services, several thousand people tried to reach Poland.
In response to the crisis, the EU has implemented a two-tier strategy. Belarus was threatened with further sanctions; meanwhile attempts were made to negotiate with transit countries to limit the flow of migrants. The result was that Turkey undertook to limit their transiting and Iraq promised to suspend all air links with Belarus. Finally, the leasing contract for Belavia aircraft was terminated. On November 12, the EU tried to resume negotiations with the regime in Minsk – contacts that had in fact been frozen since August 2020 – with the express request that this violent form of aggression cease.
The dimensions of the crisis
There are different dimensions to this crisis: political, geopolitical, economic, and, above all, ethical. We are witnessing two different ways of conceiving what a conflict is, how it should be resolved, and what means are allowed.
For the government in Minsk, migrants constitute a legitimate “weapon” to be used in their conflict with the West. The widening of the political crisis between the government of Belarus and the EU to include migrants was an attempt to barter the de facto (or even better de jure) recognition of the election results in Belarus with the end of migration flows. The conflict itself is a political tool for the Belarusian government, while for the EU it is a problem to be resolved as soon as possible.
In addition to an ethical dimension, there is above all a humanitarian one. Migrants are people and they find themselves in a very difficult situation. The current crisis is caused not only by the unscrupulous exploitation of human beings, used to blackmail the EU, but also by their total abandonment by neighboring countries. The suffering of these people, regardless of why they have found themselves in this difficult situation, must be alleviated as soon as possible. In the event that their passage across the EU border is impractical, they must at least be provided with everything they need. Their lives and safety must not be put at risk, and above all they must be provided with medical assistance.
This dramatic humanitarian crisis has led Estonia, France and Ireland in the UN Security Council to call for an examination of the situation. In addition, a number of human rights organizations, including the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, have reported Belarus to the International Criminal Court for human rights violations. On-site representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), who visited the refugee camp near the town of Bruzgi advised the migrants to return home voluntarily, or to apply to Belarus for refugee status. In Belarus, however, there are reports that migrants who wish to leave the border and return home are prevented from doing so.
This crisis has had wide repercussions for the political and social life of neighboring countries, asking the whole of Europe the old question of how to guarantee national security without violating fundamental human rights. In addition to concern for the human rights of people seeking to enter the EU, there is also concern for civil rights in the countries concerned.
Is Russia involved?
What is the role (if any) of Russia in all this? It seems quite absurd to assume that Putin, together with Lukashenko, would like to blackmail Europe by resorting to emigrants. This is an initiative by which Lukashenko is trying to resolve his problematic relations with the EU. It is likely that the whole thing came as a surprise to Putin. What if it was an unwelcome surprise? In some ways it was. Russia has enough problems with the West than to want to make them worse in this way. Lukashenko’s latest threat to turn off the gas tap was basically a threat to Russia as well.
On the other hand, it is accepted the Kremlin has a hand in what Lukashenko does. His regime can only exist because Moscow supplies it with cheap oil and gas at the expense of the Russian population, and the Russian market is open not only to Belarusian goods, but also to everything that is smuggled through Belarus (almost nothing has been done to prevent smuggling). If geopolitics is a game, Belarus is to the Kremlin like an overgrown teenager. Many young people love computer games. They are even willing to spend real money on virtual treasures. That is just what Russian politicians do: they spend real money from Russian taxpayers in exchange for Lukashenko’s virtual friendship.
The Belarusian opposition tried to explain to Russian politicians that they also lose in this arrangement the possibility of improving relations with the West for this strange form of “friendship,” after the 2020 presidential elections. Unfortunately, they did not find a receptive audience.
True, Putin is somehow trying to capitalize on this crisis. Since Lukashenko’s duplicitous game – on one side with Russia, on the other side with the West – is over, the Belarusian leader is completely at the mercy of the Kremlin. Putin sees the crisis caused by Lukashenko from the perspective of his confrontation with the West, according to the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and he acts accordingly when he tries to justify and support Lukashenko.
The end of the crisis?
Apparently, the crisis peaked in mid-November. However, it seems that Lukashenko failed to achieve all the goals he had set for himself. Therefore, a spiral was triggered, and from the borders between Belarus and Poland came reports of violence as migrants attempted to break through the borders, attacking Polish border guards and policemen.
Lukashenko once again demanded that the EU negotiate with him, thereby effectively recognizing the 2020 election results. This appeared unacceptable to some, which is why negotiations were undertaken with the Foreign Ministry.
Iraq and Turkey have been convinced to reduce or even stop the flow of migrants. At the same time, the EU has declared itself willing to finance the return flights of migrants from Minsk to their countries of origin. It seems that the whole affair has worsened the political position of Lukashenko, who, only a short time ago, had presented himself and his country as a bastion of stability.
However, even if the use of migrants as a weapon in the confrontation with the EU failed, it seems that the Lukashenko regime has not given up. In May 2021, the president compared the migration crisis to drug smuggling, from which Belarus had supposedly protected Europe. Anatoly Kotov, a former collaborator of Lukashenko, said that the Belarusian president will probably try to employ a new form of blackmail with Europe, using drugs.
The migrant crisis may soon be over. That is good news for everyone. However, the problem on the EU’s eastern borders is likely to continue.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.2 art. 14, 0222: 10.32009/22072446.0222.14
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Photo: Tensions high at Poland-Belarus border as migrants weather freezing cold | Photo: © Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Handout