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Poland border crisis – a new test of the Belarusian Regime for the West?

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How did the crisis begin?

Following the hijacking of the Irish Ryanair plane and the arrest of Roman Protasevich – a critic of the Belarusian regime, in the autumn of this year the Minsk government suspended, on the orders of Alexander Lukashenko, the cooperation with the European Union on migration, citing “unfriendly actions” by the EU and its member states. As a result, thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa stormed the borders of Belarus’s neighbors – Poland, Latvia and Lithuania – in an attempt to cross them and reach their final destination – Germany. The Belarusian regime has thus triggered a widespread immigrant crisis that it uses as political pawns in order to respond to sanctions imposed by the international community, following the falsification of the August 2020 presidential elections. In their turn, in order to combat the increasing migratory flow Poland and the Baltic states have started building a wall on the border with the last dictatorship of Europe.

The crisis escalated on November 8, when about 1000 refugees tried to force the Belarusian-Polish border to reach Poland. Videos posted on social media showed hundreds of people being escorted by armed Belarusian border guards to the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing, where they were met by Polish security forces who used tear gas in an attempt to block their passage through Polish territory. Clashes between migrants and Polish border guards continued until late in the evening when they set up tents and lit bonfires in the forest near the Podlaskie region, 300 metres from the Belarusian-Polish border.

What was the response from Poland?

After the incident, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński, confirmed in a post on his Twitter account that the country’s special services had managed to stop the attempt to force the entry of immigrants from Belarus to Poland, but stressed that the Polish authorities will remain cautious, ready for any scenario, in the event that the crisis on the border with Belarus continues to threaten the country’s security. During a broadcast on Polskie Radio, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister  said that “Belarus wants to cause a major incident, preferably with shots fired and casualties,” and he did not rule out a new attempt by  the immigrants to force entry into Poland through the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossining. In turn, Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak claimed in a statement that 12,000 soldiers had been mobilized on the border with Belarus, ready to defend Poland together with Interior Ministry troops, and Stanislaw Zarin, a spokesman for the Polish special services. characterized the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border as “the biggest attempt to invade the territory of Poland by force.”. In his turn, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki insisted on a post on  Facebook, about the need to defend the border between Poland and Belarus, urging opposition political forces to reach a consensus and to block the entry of Belarusian immigrants into Poland. Also Morawiecki claimed on November 9, during an emergency session of the Polish Parliament that the entire hybrid attack led by Lukashenko is in fact orchestrated by the Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to destabilize the European Union. Former European Council President Doanld Tusk said that the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border was affecting the security of the entire EU-NATO eastern border and stressed the need to launch consultations within the North Atlantic Alliance in order to solve the immigrant crisis. At the same time, the former Polish ambassador to Minsk Leszek Sherepka suggested that the only way to determine Aleksandr Lukashenko to end the crisis, would be the complete closure of Poland’s border with Belarus. The Warsaw authorities decided instead to impose the state of emergency at the country’s eastern border, a measure also adopted by their Lithuanian counterparts. In fact, Prime Minister Gitanas Nauseda expressed his solidarity with Poland, on his  Twitter account, being willing to support Polish officials in overcoming the immigrant crisis.

Minsk’s reply

The Belarusian authorities have vehemently denied any involvement in the crisis on the border with Poland. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Ivan Kubrakov, in an interview with the BELTA news agency, said that immigrants from all over the country meet all the legal conditions to be present in Belarus. At the same time, the Belarusian official mentioned that “the situation on the border with Poland is under control, public order being maintained by Belarusian police forces both in the capital Minsk and at the other borders of the country.” In turn, the border service of the Republic of Belarus issued a statement on the institution’s Telegram channel, in which it claimed that the indifference and inhuman attitude of the Polish officials towards immigrants, led them to resort to such a desperate gesture. At the same time, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei accused Warsaw of trying to shift responsibility for the escalating situation at the border to Minsk and warned Poland not to provoke the Republic of Belarus  in order to justify illegal military actions committed against migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border. Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin claimed that his Polish counterpart statements about the involvement of the Belarusian army in the migrant crisis are unfounded and insisted that  Warsaw had violated the bilateral, security agreements because it mobilized more than 10,000 soldiers at the common border  without prior notification to the Belarusian side. Moreover, Khrenin accused Mariusz Blaszczak of not considering solving the refugee crisis, but deliberately politicizing it.

As expected, Aleksandr Lukashenko maintained his aggressive rhetoric against Poland which he accused, in an interview published on the Telegram channel Пул первого on November 9 , of waging a war against immigrants on the border with the aim of training in the event of a future military operation directed against Belarus. Moreover, a few hours earlier, in a telephone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, the Belarusian president expressed his concern about the summoning by the Polish Minister of Defense of the country’s armed units on the border with Belarus, sign that  the Europe’s last dictator still relies on the support of the Russian president for his own political survival.

Moscow’s reaction

Moscow’s first reaction to the refugee crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border came from the Russian presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov. He said in a statement that the issue of immigrants was an internal matter of the Republic of Belarus, but added that the Russian Federation would closely monitor the alarming situation of migrant influx on the Belarus-Poland border, At the same time, the Russian official called on the parties to behave responsibly, and reiterated the need to maintain permanent contacts with Belarusian representatives in order to exchange information on developments in the region. In a separate statement, Russian Foreign Minister accused the West of the migrant crisis. Sergey Lavrov said that the current situation is the result of the conflicts and wars unleashed by the West in the Middle East and North Africa in an attempt to impose its vision of life. He also recommended that the EU manage refugee flows in the same way as it did in 2016 for Turkey, thus by allocating funds for the immigrants to remain in Belarus.

The West strikes back

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen in a statement released on the evening of November 8, called on the Belarusian regime to stop endangering the lives of thousands of people. It described the use of immigrants for political purposes as unacceptable and called on member states to approve extended sanctions against Belarus, including possible sanctions on third country airlines involved in human trafficking. The next day, the President of the European Union’s Internal Affairs Council, Slovenian Interior Minister, Ales Hays, announced the EU’s suspension of the simplified visa regime for the Belarusian citizens in response to the hybrid attack led by the country’s  authorities on the eastern border of the EU. Peter Steno, spokesman for the European Commission, also confirmed in a statement the application of a fifth package of sanctions against Belarusian officials, whom he accused of politically exploiting  the immigrants in order to distract attention from the situation in the country where the low enforcements agencies continue to repress the population for more than a year. At the same time, US State Department spokesman Ned Price reiterated the maintenance of sanctions imposed on Belarus by The Washington administration in order to determine the regime to stop the mobilization of migrant flows to the border with Poland and to respect its commitments assumed at the international level. Also, in a post on her Twitter account, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tihanovskaya said that Lukashenko is the main responsible for triggering the refugee crisis and called on him to end migrant smuggling, violence and abuses on Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

Is there a way out?

Alexander Lukashenko has denied allegations that he was behind the organized transport of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa to Minsk and later to Poland and the Baltic states, although the EU countries have suggested that the operation was orchestrated by his relatives together with the Belarusian security forces through the state airline company Belavia. Moreover, a former Belarusian border guard said in an interview for Radio Free Europe that  Belarusian border guards had been ordered by the Belarusian officials not to detain immigrants but to force their entry to Poland. If we were to analyze the actions of the refugees from the Belarusian-Polish border a few days ago, the statements of the former border guard seem to be confirmed, as they could not have been present at the Bruzgi-Kuznica crossing point,  to light fires or to set up tents without the permission of the the head of the Belarusian border guards, Anatoly Lappo. Moreover, the latter did not take any measures to stop their passage to Poland, although according to the current legislation it should have ordered the detention of immigrants, who were to be tried and then subsequently deported back to their countries. This has been the case so far with both refugees and opponents of the Belarusian regime. The case of journalist Pavel Seremet arrested in 1997 along with his operator Dmitry Zavadsky after he was filmed while trying to cross the Belarusian-Lithuanian border is notorious.  Why did the Belarusian border guards not act similarly in the migrant s case as well ?Because they have followed the orders of the Belarusian president who wants to test the responsiveness of the Western states, thus punishing them for the sanctions imposed as a result of the repression and violation of human rights applied by the Belarusian law enforcement forces since last summer, after the falsification of the presidential elections. Lukashenko, however, still relies on the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, that he also reiterated at a meeting of the Supreme Council of the State Union, in order to face ony attempts by the Western states to intervene in the internal affairs of Russia and Belarus. At the same time, the Belarusian president suggested that he was considering blocking the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline, which carries Russian gas to Poland and Germany through Belarus, as a possible response to new sanctions which were to be imposed by the West. The Russian President, wishing to position himself as a mediator in the relationship between Belarus and the European Union, however, warned that taking such a measure by the President of Belarus would be achieved in violation of the transit agreements signed between the two states, and would therefore lead to the deterioration of the Russian-Belarusian relationship.

The immigrant crisis was triggered by Alexander Lukashenko because he needed to be recognized by the international community and resume relations with the West. In fact, the call between  the Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrel, was analyzed on all websites of the Belarusian news agencies, including state-controlled ones. However, the Foreign Ministers of the EU Member States, meeting in Brussels, approved on  November  15, the fifth package of sanctions against the Belarusian regime. The blacklist included 30 people, among which Alexander Lukashenko and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, as well as representatives of airlines and travel agencies in Belarus, believed to be involved in the migrant trafficking. Despite this fact, earlier this week, Alexander Lukashenko had a first phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he discussed how to solve the immigrant crisis, including the provision of humanitarian aid to people from the Middle East and Africa. Two days later, the two officials resumed the  dialogue, agreeing on the start of negotiations at European level, with a view to ending the crisis that has been threatening security on the European Union’s eastern border for more than three months.

The first signs of a de-escalation of the crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border appeared on November 18, as 431 immigrants from Belarus returned to Iraq on an Iraqi Airways  repatriation flight. On the same day, Lukashenko’s spokeswoman Natalya Eismont claimed that there were about 7,000 migrants in the country, including those at the border. She said that “Belarus would take responsibility for sending 5,000 of the migrants home and alleged that Merkel would negotiate with the EU on creating a humanitarian corridor to Germany.” But Berlin denied any agreement with Lukashenko on the possibility of such a corridor saying it “stood by” its neighbor Poland.

On November 9,  the Belarusian border service announced the evacuation of a camp of immigrants from the Belarusian-Polish border, a fact  that was also confirmed by Alexander Lukashenko in a new call with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. During the discussion the Belarusian president said that he had de-escalated a months-long migrant crisis on the Polish border but Poland disagreed, warning that it would block rail freight traffic at the Kuznitsa railway checkpoint starting November 21 unless Belarus took action to stabilize the border between the two countries,

The situation on the Belarusian- Polish border continues to be tense, as the Polish border service continues to report further attempts by immigrants to force the barbed wire fence to cross into Poland. In the last 24 hours, 195 such attempts have been registered, with 200 refugees arrested as well as two citizens, one German and one Ukrainian, accused of helping them to reach the EU. Meanwhile, Alexander Lukashenko. in an interview with the BBC, appeared to acknowledge the involvement of Belarusian border guards in transporting immigrants to Poland but denied that he was personally involved in the operation in order to destabilize the European Union. For the last dictator of Europe, the immigrant crisis was only an exercise in which he sought to obtain legitimacy from Western states as he is only interested in one thing: to stay in power in Belarus. In order to ensure it’s own political survival, he resumed cooperation with the Russian Federation, with which he signed another 28 agreements on the integration of the two states into the State Union and continued the procedures to amend the country’s constitution so as to lead Belarus as President of the Belarusian People’s Assembly. The referendum on the approval of the new fundamental law of the Republic is scheduled to take place in February 2022.

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