The home front of the Polish border debacle with Belarus

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) knew exactly what to expect from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko before he began smuggling refugees from the Middle East to the Polish border. The Belarusian authorities had already done it to Lithuania and Latvia. And as a clear sign of what was to come, Belarus ended its Readmission Agreement with the EU in October. Poland had time to take preventive measures in the refugees’ countries of origin. That wasn’t the case, and now thousands of desperate people crouch on the border in the cold, facing options that are either bad or very bad.

One reason why the PiS-led government failed months ago to work with the EU to avert the crisis is that, among other things, it is busy fighting EU institutions over their politicization of the Polish judiciary. The irony is, of course, that the PiS was already notorious in the 2015 EU-wide refugee crisis for its government’s refusal to accept asylum seekers. It should have been clear then that the tables could easily be reversed – and now they have it.

By hesitating until refugees had already gathered at the border, the PiS created the opportunity to stage a cynical show that defended the Polish nation against foreign threats. Officials have since stated that a Emergency and held press conferences on armored vehicles – measures designed to unite the society behind the government by fueling fear and patriotism. The Polish leadership also refuses to allow it Journalists in the border areawhich gives the impression that it either has something to hide or is paranoid. Meanwhile, Lukashenko lets reporters in, which helps promote his version of the events.

On the other side of the border are Belarusian armed forces, armed to the teeth, and locking up the refugees at the border. Polish and Belarusian soldiers are only a few dozen meters apart, with several thousand desperate people in between. The situation is tense; a shot could be fired at any time.

If that happens, the person responsible on the Belarusian side would be a crazy dictator with a tendency to violence. For the Belarusian authorities, vigorous aggression is already routine. To make matters worse, the most experienced military commanders on the Polish side have long been ousted by the PiS government.

Lukashenko seems to have come to the conclusion that the best way to improve his position vis-à-vis the West and its most important ally, Russia, is not by showing that he is someone with whom others can work, but by showing that he is too is capable of anything. After all, his regime already has kidnapped a civil flight between two EU Member States just to keep a young journalist on board. With every provocation, the message to both Russia and the West is clear: ‘If you try to swallow me, I’ll stick your throat and choke you.’

The PiS government has left Poland increasingly isolated as it has tainted relations with all allies except the most pro-Russian country in the EU, Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Poland is now a pawn, as the Chancellor’s decision shows Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to bypass the Polish government and to discuss the migration crisis in talks with Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Polish citizens must now put all their trust in the remaining goodwill of the EU and NATO. But while Article 5 of the NATO treaty ensures mutual defense against external aggression, it does not specify how the allies should react. Should they send an army or just set up a commission of inquiry? In an age of hybrid warfare, good relationships with allies are everything. The Poles are safe as long as we have good relations with Germany, France and the United States. Unfortunately, these relationships are currently in tatters.

The Polish government’s refusal to even ask for international aid has exacerbated the crisis on the border. The inclusion of Frontex (the EU agency for the border and coast guard) would have changed the calculation for Belarus and Russia immediately. An attack on a Polish officer is one thing, an attack on officers from all EU countries is quite another. Nor did the Polish government bother to invoke Article 4 of the NATO Treaty, although it is an immediate one Consultation among the allies.

Another reason Poland was so unprepared for this crisis is that the PiS has worked diligently to divide Polish society and the political elite. In order to thwart any consensus between the parties, the government did not invite the opposition to join the country’s National Security Council. But even if that were the case, opposition politicians would have every reason to believe they were being led into a trap. In either case, the focus would be on the pursuit of political advantage rather than building solidarity in the face of a hostile threat.

A united front between PiS, the leading opposition Civic Platform and others would be much easier for political leaders in Berlin, Paris and Washington to support. Chairman of the Civic Platform, former President of the European Council Donald Tusk, maintains good relations with former partners and allies of Poland. During the last EU summit in Brussels, he met with the most important heads of state and government, while the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was mostly avoided.

Left to their own devices, Morawiecki and his puppeteer, PiS boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski, arouse glee rather than sympathy. But this could be a pivotal moment for the opposition, which collectively outperforms the PiS. Now that Poland is facing a real threat – and not a specter conjured up by hostility towards Germany or Euroscepticism – world leaders should remember that PiS is not synonymous with Poland.

Poland is still a country worth believing in, even if part of its political elite is doing everything possible to turn it into a basket. Poland is not just Kaczynski, and the country itself deserves support even if its government does not.

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