Lukashenko’s Flirt With Migrants May Backfire

2021 Belarus–European Union border crisis. Routes of illegal migrants are shown
Image by Homoatrox

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A large number of migrants from the Middle East, seeking to get into the European Union, remain stuck at the Belarusian–Polish border. The migrant crisis seems to be part of a wider game between Russia’s ally Belarus and the EU periphery countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is undoubtedly using migrants as an instrument against the neighboring EU members that have provided support to his political opponents during the mass protests in 2020. Brussels has, ever since, imposed several packages of sanctions against Minsk, and Lukashenko has found an efficient way to respond to the EU actions. He brought thousands of migrants from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to Belarus, and helped them reach the EU. Formally, the Belarusian leader is doing nothing wrong, given the EU has adopted the principle that if a person flees a war zone and one way or another reaches Germany, France, or any other EU member, he or she can apply for refugee status. Although Western elites generally have a very positive attitude towards mass migration from the so-called Third World countries, in this particular case both the United States and the European Union have strongly condemned Lukashenko’s actions. The European Commission has accused Belarus’s President of luring migrants with the false promise of easy entry to the EU as part of an “inhuman, gangster-style approach”. Belarusian authorities, for their part, insist they stick to the European values and norms, as well as universally recognized principles of international law.

“Having placed faith in the sincerity of the statements of European governments, migrants put everything they had on the line and headed to EU countries with the last hope of finding a better life. However, on the Polish border, they have faced a barbed wire fence, an aggressive and dehumanizing attitude”, the Presidium of the Council of the Republic Belarus announced

Although the migrants’ main destination is Germany, rather than Poland or the Baltic countries, Warsaw has deployed thousands of troops to the Belarusian border in order to prevent asylum seekers from illegally entering the EU. Lithuania and Latvia have also strengthened border control, and the three countries have reportedly started building a wall on their borders with Belarus. If such a barrier proves to be efficient, Lukashenko’s room for maneuver will be rather limited. Still, he will have at least three options. He could deport the migrants back to their countries, which would be very risky and expensive. Alternatively, Belarusian authorities could redirect asylum seekers to the south and help them cross the Ukrainian border. After that, migrants would try to enter the EU from Ukrainian territory. Finally, Lukashenko could also let migrants freely go Russia, given the border between Russia and Belarus practically does not exist, but it is rather questionable if the Kremlin would approve such a decision.

“We know that if, god forbid, we make some error, if we falter, then Russia will become immediately involved in this vortex. And Russia is a major nuclear power. I am not a madman. I understand perfectly well where it can lead”, Lukashenko stressed.

In other words, Belarusian President is quite aware of his limits, and he will not cross the Kremlin’s red lines. According to reports, he discussed the migrant crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 11, but it is unclear who initiated the call. If it was Putin, then it is entirely possible the West has already started pressuring the Russian leader to prevent Lukashenko from bringing more migrants to the EU borders. 

“This attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow, the mastermind is President Putin”, said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki

Such a statement clearly indicates that certain political structures in the West indirectly seek Russia’s help in resolving the migrant crisis. The EU will, however, keep imposing sanctions on Russia’s ally, since Brussels is aware that any concessions to Belarus would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Lukashenko, in contrast, will likely keep responding asymmetrically to EU sanctions. The more sanctions the West imposes on Belarus, the more migrants Lukashenko will bring to EU borders. However, the problem for the Belarusian President is that refugees could eventually remain stuck in the former Soviet republic. 

It is a well-known fact Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan receives billions from the EU to prevent migrants from the Middle East from reaching Europe. Lukashenko’s position is not nearly as favorable as Erdogan’s. The EU does not seem willing to lift sanctions it imposed on Belarus, let alone provide money to the Belarusian leader. Thus, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are expected to keep defending EU borders, and it is not improbable that Russia, sooner or later, will start acting as some sort of mediator. Hypothetically, Moscow, or even the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, could deploy its troops to the Belarus–Poland border –- a move that would portray the Kremlin as a “factor of stability and peace” in the region. Meanwhile, the migrant crisis will go on, although both Belarus and Poland will tend to avoid any major incidents. As Lukashenko stressed, everything is smoothly organized. 

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