No dictator has clung to power for a quarter of a century without showing a great deal of cunning. Alexander Lukashenko from Belarus has found a way to hit the EU at a sensitive point as part of his fight against sanctions the bloc imposed for its tough crackdown on the opposition following controversial elections last year. EU ministers last week accused the strongman of Minsk of “instrumentalizing” people and launching a “direct attack” to destabilize the bloc – by deliberately smuggling Middle Eastern migrants across its borders into EU neighbors.
So far this year, more than 4,100 asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq, have entered Lithuania illegally from Belarus, 50 times as many as in all of 2020. Neighbors accuse Minsk of offering packages to migrants from Iraq, Syria or North African countries including Belarus Border crossing; Lithuania has released video footage allegedly showing the Belarusian riot police pushing migrants across the border. When the flows to Lithuania slowed recently as it strengthened its borders, they increased to Poland. According to its own statements, Warsaw arrested more illegal migrants in August than in the entire period from January to July.
Latvia, which also borders Belarus, declared a state of emergency at the border so the army can assist border guards, and Poland sent more than 900 soldiers to its border with Belarus last week. The Latvian Foreign Minister has warned of the risk of incidents in which Russian and Belarusian troops will take part in military exercises near NATO’s borders next month.
Lukashenko examines one of the most critical points in the EU. The 2015 wave of migrants from Syria and elsewhere opened deep rifts and strengthened nationalist parties. It later emerged that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had violated EU law by refusing to accept “quotas” from asylum seekers. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has sparked fears of a new wave of asylum seekers that could strengthen populists in elections in Germany, France and elsewhere.
The Belarusian head of state said the country would respond to foreign pressure “according to its capabilities”. He said at an eight-hour press conference earlier this month that Western sanctions would backfire, as “the reality of today’s events shows” at the borders.
His actions pose a dilemma for the EU heads of state and government. They have relied on sanctions against officials and companies since last year’s post-election protests to punish the Lukashenko regime for crackdown. Thousands of people were arrested.
However, there are ways Brussels can respond. One is to help secure and monitor the EU’s borders with Belarus and to build reception centers where any migrants who make it can be treated.
Second, the only realistic option for migrants to make their first entry into the EU from Belarus is to fly there. EU pressure has already convinced Iraq to suspend flights to Belarus for the time being. Brussels must also engage with countries from which, for example, Afghan migrants could be flown to Minsk. Officials, as well as scheduled airlines, charter companies and aircraft leasing companies, should be warned of the risk of penalties for such activities.
Lukashenko will certainly have other tricks up his sleeve. He has already threatened to allow drugs and nuclear material to flow into the EU – here, too, stricter border controls could help. EU member states could struggle again to maintain their unity when faced with an influx of migrants fleeing oppression in Afghanistan. But they should not allow themselves to be manipulated by a man who oppresses his own people in the heart of Europe.