Several thousand asylum-seekers from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan were camped along the border between Poland and Belarus for a second night on Tuesday, their desperation being used as leverage in an increasingly dangerous geopolitical struggle.
Behind the would-be refugees stood a line of Belarusian soldiers and riot police, the iron fist of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, which opened a road for migrants to reach Belarus. The regime then sent them straight on to the country’s borders with Poland, as well as the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia.
The Polish government said that between 3,000 and 4,000 people were in the makeshift camp near the Kuznica border crossing on Tuesday night, as temperatures plunged near 0 C, and thousands more refugees and migrants were believed to be en route.
In front of them, on the other side of thick coils of barbed wire that mark the frontier of not just Poland, but also the European Union and NATO, were some 12,000 Polish soldiers and riot police, brought to the border region after the Polish government declared a state of emergency in the area. On Tuesday, Lithuania, which is also a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, declared a state of emergency along its own border with Belarus after seeing a surge in attempted illegal crossings.
Polish forces could be seen in videos using what appeared to be pepper spray to drive back crowds who had broken through the barbed wire in some places using shovels, logs and other tools. Polish troops have also faced accusations of violating international law by pushing asylum-seekers who managed to cross the border back into Belarus.
Belarusian soldiers, meanwhile, have occasionally fired volleys into the air in an apparent effort to drive the refugees forward. “The Belarusian regime is attacking the Polish border, the EU, in an unparalleled manner,” Polish President Andrzej Duda told a news conference in Warsaw. “These are aggressive actions that we must repel, fulfilling our obligations as a member of the European Union.”
Poland’s Border Guard reported 309 illegal attempts to breach the frontier on Monday and said 17 people, most of them Iraqis, had been detained.
Western governments have accused Mr. Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime of using the asylum-seekers to seek revenge on Poland and Lithuania for their overt support of a popular uprising in Belarus last year that nearly toppled the long-ruling dictator. His apparent aim is to create a new refugee crisis inside the European Union, a smaller-scale version of what happened in 2015 and 2016, when hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants arrived in the EU, creating deep political divisions in some countries, and empowering far-right political movements.
That 2015-16 crisis eased only after the EU agreed to pay €3-billion ($4.2-billion) to Turkey, which in turn agreed to keep asylum-seekers in camps on its soil, rather than allowing them easy passage to Europe.
Prospects of the EU reaching a similar deal with Mr. Lukashenko’s regime seem remote. Instead, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on Monday for sanctions against Belarus to be extended, and for additional sanctions to be used to punish those involved in what she called the “cynical instrumentalization of migrants.”
For months, Belarusian embassies in places such as Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut have been rubber-stamping visas for those hoping to reach Europe.
Some travel packages – which reportedly cost between $17,000 and $21,000 a person – include flights to the Belarusian capital of Minsk, where migrants are allowed to stay for several days before they are guided toward one of the borders.
State media in Belarus sought to portray Poland and the EU as “inhumane” for leaving the asylum-seekers stranded at the border in the cold, with insufficient clothing or food. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said Western countries had a responsibility to care for the migrants since it was the West that had waged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Exacerbating tensions, Poland is a member of NATO while Belarus is a staunch Russian ally. Mr. Lukashenko held a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to discuss the crisis.
In an interview with Russia’s National Defense magazine, excerpts from which were published on Tuesday, Mr. Lukashenko accused Poland of provoking the situation by moving military equipment closer to the border. He referenced the dark history of large wars beginning in the region.
“You have to agree that resorting to weapons in the modern world is tantamount to suicide. Even more so here, in the centre of Europe. And even more so with Belarus. Because all the wars have always happened in this piece of land in the centre, everything began here. Doesn’t history teach anything?” Mr. Lukashenko was quoted as saying.
Poland and the EU, meanwhile, say Belarus and Russia are waging a “hybrid” war against them, with the border crisis coming at the same time as Mr. Lukashenko’s allies in Moscow are tightening the economic squeeze on Europe, driving up energy prices by reducing exports of Russian natural gas.
“This attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow, the mastermind is President Putin,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told an emergency session of the Polish Parliament on Tuesday.
However, Valery Kavaleuski, foreign affairs representative for the Belarusian democratic movement, said it was Mr. Lukashenko, not the Kremlin, that was driving the crisis.
Mr. Kavaleuski said Western economic sanctions – imposed after a 2020 Belarusian election that many believe was won by challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – were starting to pinch Mr. Lukashenko and his inner circle, so the dictator decided to escalate.
Canada and other Western governments have never recognized the 2020 election result as legitimate, and they applied sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko and his coterie after force was used to suppress the pro-democracy protests that erupted after the disputed vote.
“Lukashenko wants to use [the refugee crisis] to put pressure on the EU. He’s saying, ‘Recognize me [as President] and lift the sanctions and the situation will be resolved,’ ” Mr. Kavaleuski said. He predicted that the crisis would get more dangerous in the days ahead. “Events have shown that he’s willing to take more risks and double down.”
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