After the popular unrest against the rigged elections in Belarus in August 2020, the number of refugees, including political asylum seekers, increased significantly. Belarusians are leaving the country in droves because of the dictatorial rule of Alexander Lukashenko. The people of Belarus increasingly fear for their lives as dissent is severely punished by the Lukashenko. Many opposition activists have been in hiding in the Baltic Republics and Ukraine for a year and the worsening economic situation in Belarus is forcing people to look for a better life in the European Union, often as illegal migrants.
A new weapon of the Lukashenko regime has been to encourage and assist Middle Eastern migrants to illegally cross the European Union’s borders. This is Lukashenko’s response to the EU’s sanctions against him. “You closed your airspace for us and expanded the sanctions list, so we, in turn, will open up our borders and create problems for Poland, Lithuania and Latvia,” Lukashenko has said.
A state of emergency has already been declared due to the influx of migrants in Lithuania, which has decided to build a fence along its border with Belarus. The EU is going to provide Vilnius with €12 million in financial assistance to combat the crisis. Latvia has also introduced a three-month state of emergency. Other countries may follow, but they would need help from Brussels.
Lukashenko has nothing to counter the EU’s sanctions. All that remains for him is to play dirty tricks on their closest neighbors with his new weapon.
“Thousands and thousands of illegal migrants have rushed to Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. They demand that we protect them from smuggling and drugs. The message is already heard from across the Atlantic: ’Help us as you did before when you stopped nuclear materials from getting into Europe.’ So will we spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year as before to protect your geopolitical interests?”, the dictator asked the rhetorical question.
What Lukashenko is hinting at is obvious. In addition to illegal migrants, the next problem he could cause for Europe will be drug trafficking from Asia and the smuggling of nuclear materials.
Lukashenko also stressed that the border of his country is open for the transiting of migrants from Africa and Asia, but will not be allowed to return to Belarus. One of his targets could be Ukraine, with which he has had an uneasy relationship over the last few months. No wonder that Kyiv has sent humanitarian aid to Lithuania.
He did, however, dismiss the notion that he is deliberately creating a migration crisis. “Illegal migration… No, we don’t blackmail anyone. We don’t threaten anyone. If they don’t calm down at the borders, they will get pounded in the face to the fullest as they are deliberately carrying out these actions at the border. They test my patience and push me to retaliate,” Lukashenko explained.
The last thing the EU needs is another migrant crisis. Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, visited Lithuania last month and condemned Belarus for allowing illegal migrants to cross into the bloc. According to Michel, all 27 members of the EU are seeing eye-to-eye on this issue, including Hungary, which has maintained good relations with Minsk. Brussels, however, is only able to provide help via its border protection agency Frontex.
The main goal of the EU is to make Lukashenko sit down at the negotiating table with the opposition and come to an agreement about a transition period.
The key factor in any future agreement is the role of Russia. For the past 27 years, whenever Lukashenko gets in trouble, Moscow gives him a helping hand by providing hundreds of millions of dollars and security assistance.
Vladimir Putin hasn’t demanded Belarusian sovereignty very firmly in exchange, so far, but since the current political crisis erupted last summer, the Kremlin has been consolidating its grip over the neighboring country.
What’s more, Lukashenko would hardly dare to introduce a “hybrid warf” against the EU without Putin’s approval. Reportedly, the security services of the two countries have already intermingled. The economies could follow and Belarus may finally agree to host Russian military bases.
The world should pay careful attention to events in September when the Russian and Belarusian armies will hold a large scale military drill called Zapad (West in Russian). Should Putin decide to take over Belarus, no inner forces will be able to defend the country’s sovereignty.
The sad reality is that the EU will watch all of this unfold with idle hands as no new round of sanctions will help.