The European Union continues to follow the political crisis in Belarus. In response to widespread protests against the rigged 2020 presidential election, Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka carried out brutal crackdown on civil society that resulted in mass emigration and the imprisonment of hundreds of people on political allegations. In May of this year, the regime hijacked a plane carrying EU citizens between European capitals. Now, inspired by the concessions Turkey and Morocco have made in using migration as a weapon, he is putting pressure on the EU by staging a migration crisis on the Belarusian border with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. Lukashenka doesn’t just want to force the EU to relax the sanctions against his country. He would also like the bloc to initiate a dialogue with his government, start negotiations and thereby show that the statements of the European heads of state and government about its illegality are nothing more than empty words.
Lukashenka began using migration as a weapon immediately after the EU imposed its fourth package of sanctions against his regime. There was an increase in flights from the Middle East to Belarus, while so-called tourist companies in the country prepared special offers for sightseeing on the western border of the country. Lithuania was hit first and initially took refugees and other migrants in special camps on its territory. However, this became more and more difficult as the number increased: Belarusian border guards accompanied many refugees and migrants to the most vulnerable and poorly guarded sections of the border.
The Lithuanian authorities responded by changing course. Now they are pushing back all illegal border crossings into Belarus in a similar way using “pushbacks” that are contrary to EU and international law – and which have accordingly been criticized by human rights organizations. Lithuania has erected dozens of kilometers of barbed wire fences on its border and has stepped up guard patrols there.
Poland went the same way. The country closest to Germany is now Lukashenka’s main destination. As a result, the Polish authorities are now blocking hundreds of attempts to illegally cross the border every day. Since August more than 30,000 Migrants tried to make the crossing. The Polish government did not see this as a humanitarian crisis, but as an act of Belarusian aggression and had no qualms about containing the migrants at all costs – and decided that if they cross the border they must be pushed back into Belarus. On September 2, the government declared a state of emergency in the border area – that is, it is now taboo for anyone who wants to help those stranded there, including doctors, NGO employees and journalists. In October, the Polish parliament passed a law allowing pushbacks under domestic law. The government has now set in motion 12,000 Border guards monitoring the area. Poland is now planning to build a “barrier” along roughly half of its 418 km long border with Belarus (the rest of the border is already considered difficult to cross). Poland has every right to protect its border, but it is inhumane to block medical aid and to force migrants back to Belarus. The country should work with European partners to tackle the situation.
However, all of this happened against the background of the intensifying rule of law war between Warsaw and the EU institutions. And Poland was one of the few EU countries that refused to accept refugees during the 2015 migration crisis. Since then she has rejected refugee quotas. The Polish government takes a tough stance on migration and does not want to count on EU help. Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard, is ready to help. But Poland would have to ask the EU for such help – which would be awkward to say the least. Worse, for the Polish government it would mean working with Brussels and accepting some level of EU control over the border. Warsaw therefore prefers to manage alone. Opposition leader Donald Tusk has argued that it is time for NATO to help manage the situation, which could be a more palatable move for the government.
Other EU countries are already feeling the effects of this crisis. The influx of migrants via Belarus to Germany rose from 500 in August to over 2,000 in September to around 4,000 in October. Since the emergency shelters in its eastern regions are now full, Germany has reintroduced controls on its border with Poland. This scenario was foreseen in a secret paper that the Federal Ministry of the Interior commissioned in spring 2021. The document warned that the Russian and Belarusian governments could use migrants to put pressure on Germany and, combined with disinformation and covert operations, stir up political differences in the country.
The caretaker government in Berlin acted quickly to suppress right-wing activism on the border, such as the so-called border patrols run by. were organized Neo-Nazi party Third way. But the leadership is unable to do much more than implement this stopgap solution. Until the next coalition government takes office, Germany will neither be in a position to lead a uniform European response to the crisis nor to enact new laws to deal with the crisis. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is a member of the conservative Christian Social Union and will therefore resign on December 6th. Meanwhile, the likely members of the next government have different views on asylum and migration. It would be difficult for the FDP to submit to the more liberal migration policy that the Greens and the Social Democratic Party have in mind if there is an acute crisis on the border. So far they have not perceived the situation that way. But they could change their minds quickly as footage shows up showing that Belarusian soldiers drive large columns of migrants to the border.
The top politicians in Berlin do not want to make any concessions to Lukashenka, as the EU did to Turkey in 2015. Instead, they discuss targeted measures against airlines and other smugglers. However, such measures would not affect migrants who have already arrived in the EU. And given the rejection of refugee quotas in Warsaw and the refusal to ask Frontex for help, Germany is having a hard time suggesting that the EU provide help to Poland. While Seehofer pointed out that Moscow held the “key to the problem”, he kept it close to suggesting how Germany should influence the Kremlin’s calculations on the matter.
The EU plays an important role in this environment. The bloc must show that it will no longer tolerate the arming of migration. It is crucial that the EU not initiate a dialogue with Lukashenka. As with any form of blackmail, it would be pointless and dangerous to make concessions – because the attacker will only ask for more. This would signal to other authoritarians that such tactics work.
The EU must address the root cause of the problem by continuing to punish Lukashenka for his actions and making it difficult for Russia to support him. One way to do this is to significantly tighten the sanctions. At the same time, the EU could help put pressure on Middle Eastern governments and airlines to block or end effective people smuggling (especially in the case of the latter, who continue to operate in the EU market). The EU should help neighboring countries to Belarus protect their borders and migrants entering their territory. But it will be up to these countries to accept this help.
Lukashenka has shown no desire to change course. He plans to significantly increase the number of flights in winter – even if that means Belarus will be forced to take in thousands of migrants. He’s not afraid of dead at the border. For him, it’s about revenge and the survival of the regime – that is, he is ready to escalate further and seek the support of Russia in the process. Europeans will have to work together to stop his aggression and avert a humanitarian crisis on their doorstep.
The European Council on External Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications reflect only the views of its individual authors.