Migrants in Belarus urge Europeans to show their values

One of President Joe Biden’s favorite refrains is that the defining geopolitical competition of our time is between “democracy and autocracy.”

Exactly such a fight is now taking place on the Polish-Belarusian border. The autocratic Belarusian government knows what it is doing: encouraging thousands of Middle Eastern migrants to come to Poland.

Why we wrote that

On the Belarusian-Polish border, President Biden’s competition between “autocracy and democracy” takes place. But European democracies are vulnerable without a migration game plan.

But the reason this is so sensitive is that democratic Europe is doing it not knows what it’s doing. The European Union has failed to agree on a humane and efficient way of distinguishing political refugees from economic migrants. So Poland’s response, as a frontline member of the EU, is to simply unroll the barbed wire, send 15,000 soldiers and prevent anyone from entering.

If President Biden is right, this won’t be the last time countries like Belarus and its patron Russia try to harass their European neighbors. This could be a further incentive for democracies to agree among themselves on how to express their values ​​in relation to fleeing foreigners.


It has been said so often by US President Joe Biden that it has almost become a rhetorical refrain: that the defining geopolitical competition of our time is between “democracy and autocracy”. And that is exactly what seems to be happening this week in the heart of Europe, on the Belarusian border with Poland.

On the one hand, the Kremlin-backed dictator of Belarus is using thousands of increasingly desperate Middle East refugees and migrants as a political weapon against the European Union.

But within the EU, the crisis has raised the question of what its democratic values ​​actually require of governments when it comes to welcoming those who may or may not seek refuge within their borders.

Why we wrote that

On the Belarusian-Polish border, President Biden’s competition between “autocracy and democracy” takes place. But European democracies are vulnerable without a migration game plan.

The EU states are reacting to the challenge from Belarus in a united manner. They are angry about how their President Alexander Lukashenko has consciously relaxed the entry requirements for refugees and migrants from Iraq, Syria and Yemen and directed them west to the border with the EU member state Poland.

His aim appears to be to pressure Europeans to lift the sanctions they have imposed since his re-election last year, which international observers have labeled as rigged, followed by a crackdown on the ensuing street protests.

If so, this attempt has failed. The EU foreign ministers announced this week plans for further sanctions, rejecting what their foreign policy boss Josep Borrell called the “instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes”.

But beneath the surface of EU unity lies a fault line: between the Union’s founding members in Western Europe and some of its newer members, such as Poland, who were once in Soviet orbit and are now self-proclaimed “illiberal democracies”. ”

While there was unanimous agreement that Lukashenko must be held responsible for what happened, some politicians and experts in Western Europe have criticized the Polish reaction: ranks of troops along the barbed wire fence with orders to keep the desperate migrants out and prevent aid workers , Journalists and other outside observers to enter the area.

And while Belarus encourages increasingly desperate refugees and migrants to break through the border, the Polish troops have not only stood firm. On Tuesday, they responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Nikolai Petrov / BelTA / Reuters

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will chair a meeting on November 16, 2021 in Minsk, Belarus, dedicated to the migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border.

However, EU leaders were reluctant to publicly criticize the muscular reactions of the Warsaw government. And that’s because they’re afraid of exposing an issue tied to values ​​and political challenges that they have been avoiding for years.

That is the question of how or whether a community that has formally committed itself to democracy and human rights should react to those seeking protection in Europe against what international refugee law defines as “a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality”, Belonging to a certain social group or political opinion ”in their home countries. And how to distinguish them from economic migrants in search of a better life.

Six years ago a huge influx of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, more than a million in all, put the unity of the EU to the test. The crisis eased when Chancellor Angela Merkel took the political risk of taking most of them into Germany.

But the attempt to introduce a “quota system” in which other states would help to relocate the refugees met with resistance, especially on the eastern edge of the EU.

And the EU as a whole decided to do everything possible to avert further surge and the issues that come with it. The main pillar of this policy was paying billions of dollars to the autocratic leader on his southern flank, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to look after migrants and refugees in his own country instead of letting them move to Europe.

The EU’s inability to develop refugee policy, as well as Poland’s particularly fierce resistance to any immigration from the Middle East, have left Europe vulnerable to Lukashenko’s use of refugees as a political weapon in his confrontation with the EU.

And while Russia, Lukashenko’s indispensable ally and financier, asserts that it has nothing to do with the border crisis, Moscow is also well aware of the difficulties and divisions in the EU on this issue. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed this week with regard to the Turkey deal that the Europeans would simply pay Lukashenko and the crisis would go away.

But Lukashenko is not the first to use refugees as a political lever. In times of tension with the EU or the USA, the Turkish President himself has repeatedly indicated that the floodgates for refugees should be reopened.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin used the same tactic five years ago, allowing more than 1,000 migrants to leave Russia on the border with Finland until Helsinki lifted some of the sanctions it had imposed on Russia following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine .

It will probably not be the last such case of the “democracy versus autocracy” struggle highlighted by President Biden. This could be another incentive for democracies to agree on how to express their values ​​to refugee foreigners.

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