Tensions have flared in Eastern Europe and on the Belarusian-Polish border with thousands of asylum seekers attempting to enter Poland, which constitutes the external border of the European Union (EU). Belarus is accused of permitting visa-free entry to refugees, in particular Kurds, from the war-torn West Asia and encouraging their passage to the EU border. Since the EU’s external border constitutes its only line of defence against unwanted migrants, Poland used water cannon and tear gas to repel the asylum-seekers, and except for the gravely ill, those who breached the border have been pushed back. In freezing conditions, some 15 or more refugees have died. This crisis and escalation of rhetoric between the EU, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine subserve aspects of the foreign and domestic agendas of all these governments.
For Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko, under sanctions by the EU since last year’s election when he secured a sixth dubious term, this is brinkmanship with both the EU and Russia. Belarus has economic and military alliances with Russia, effectively making it the Russian last frontier against an encroaching North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While Belarus is entirely dependent on Russia, this does not preclude a client state from proving a difficult partner. North Korea is troublesome for China, Haiti for the United States, and there are other examples nearer home. Mr. Lukashenko even threatened to block the pipeline transporting Russian gas through Belarus to the EU, a threat speedily negated by Moscow.
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A focus on the EU
President Lukashenko denies inviting migrants to Belarus, instead blaming the EU for closing its borders. He seeks to pressure the EU with a scenario akin the 2015 refugee crisis, when the EU gave money and non-financial incentives to Turkey and certain Libyan warlords to restrain the migration exodus. Finding these tactics blocked, he proposed that Germany take in 2,000 refugees while 7,000 others would be repatriated, but this was rejected, and the majority of migrants are refusing to go home.
Politicians in West and East Europe accuse Moscow as instigator of the crisis amid claims that Russia is about to invade Ukraine. It defies logic why Russia would stage a crisis with Germany, the destination of the asylum seekers, and invade Ukraine, when procedures are afoot to certify Nord Stream 2, a pipeline to deliver gas to the EU bypassing Ukraine and Belarus. The argument of instigating Russia into reckless action involving Belarus and Ukraine in order to derail Nord Stream 2 makes much more sense, particularly from an American viewpoint.
After initially declaring that it saw no evidence of Russian mobilisation, Ukraine changed tack and endorsed NATO claims of an imminent invasion. Russian grievances concern the use of Turkish-built drones in the Donbass breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, and provocative NATO activities close to its land and sea borders. The 2015 Minsk agreement was designed to end the conflict in Donbass through provincial elections, decentralisation and the restoration of socio-economic relations between Kiev and the breakaway self-styled republics, but there has been no constitutional amendment, no elections, and Donbass is subject to an economic blockade.
Moscow has evidently lost hope in Kiev observing the Minsk agreement for substantial regional autonomy. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree of 2019 allowed Donbass people to claim Russian citizenship, and the latest Kremlin moves to integrate Donbass economically, will turn Ukraine’s east, like Crimea, slowly into a de facto Russian region.
Poland seems the unwilling victim of the tactics of Belarus, but the refugee crisis is a godsend for Warsaw when both Poland and the EU are entangled in a bitter dispute over the rule of law after Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal invalidated some provisions of the EU Treaty. Contrary to EU’s principles, Warsaw promotes ‘traditional values’ which include homophobic legislation, LGBT-free zones and a ban on abortions. Poland has imposed a ban on journalists and NGOs within three kilometres of its frontier, and is under criticism from human rights groups and the Council of Europe, but the tension affords Warsaw scope to boost anti-Russian rhetoric and proclaim itself a defender of Europe, despite anti-immigrant tirades being a staple of its far-right politics. The border problem also gives the EU the opportunity to prove its worth to Poland by extending its fulsome support.
The larger issue
The crisis on the Belarus-Poland border is symptomatic of the wider refugee problem. In recent months the United States has turned away Haitians, Thailand Burmese, India Rohingyas and Afghans. More than 25,000 people arrived in Britain by sea this year, causing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fulminate against France’s failure to stem the refugees of whom 27 drowned recently.
The migrant crisis is not confined to a few countries, has led to wars like the one between India and Pakistan 50 years ago, and requires corrective action at the transnational level. There are now an estimated 26 million refugees in the world and no country has a creditable record on this issue.
Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary