The political crisis in Belarus continues to haunt the European Union. In response to widespread protests over the rigged 2020 presidential election, Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka conducted a brutal crackdown on civil society that has led to mass emigration and the imprisonment of hundreds of people on political charges. In May this year, the regime hijacked a plane carrying EU citizens between European capitals. Now, inspired by the concessions that Turkey and Morocco have won by using migration as a weapon, he is applying pressure on the EU by engineering a migration crisis on the Belarusian border with Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. Lukashenka not only aims to force the EU to ease sanctions on his country. He also wants the bloc to launch a dialogue with his government, start bargaining, and thereby demonstrate that European leaders’ statements about his illegitimacy are nothing more than empty words.
Lukashenka began to use migration as a weapon immediately after the EU imposed its fourth package of sanctions on 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 at its western border. Lithuania was hit first, initially hosting refugees and other migrants in special camps on its territory. But this became increasingly difficult as the numbers grew: Belarusian border guards were accompanying many refugees and migrants to the most vulnerable and poorly guarded sections of the border.
The Lithuanian authorities responded by changing tack. Now, they return all those who illegally cross the border to Belarus in a similar way, via ‘pushbacks’ that are illegal under EU and international law – and that, accordingly, have drawn criticism from human rights organisations. Lithuania has erected dozens of kilometres of barbed-wire fencing on its border and reinforced guard patrols there.
Poland followed the same path. Closest to Germany, the country is now Lukashenka’s main target. As a result, the Polish authorities now block hundreds of attempts to illegally cross the border every day. Since August, more than 30,000 migrants have tried to make the crossing. The Polish government has seen it not as a humanitarian crisis, but as an act of Belarusian aggression and has had no qualms about containing the migrants at any cost – deciding that, if they do cross the border, they must be pushed back into Belarus. On 2 September, the government declared a state of emergency in the border area – meaning that it is now off limits to anyone who wants to help those stranded there, including doctors, NGO workers, and journalists. In October, the Polish parliament passed a law that permits pushbacks under domestic law. Meanwhile, the government has deployed 12,000 border guards to monitor the area. Poland is now planning to build a ‘barrier’ along roughly half of its 418km-long border with Belarus (it views the rest of the border as already difficult to cross). Poland has every right to protect its border, but blocking medical help and pushing migrants back into Belarus is inhumane. The country should work together with European partners to manage the situation.
However, all this has taken place against the background of Warsaw’s intensifying battle with EU institutions over the rule of law. And Poland was one of the few EU countries to refuse to take in refugees during the 2015 migration crisis. It has rejected refugee quotas ever since. The Polish government is taking a tough stance on migration and does not want to count on the EU for assistance. Frontex, the EU’s border and coastguard agency, is ready to help. But Poland would have to ask the EU for such help – which would be awkward, to say the least. Worse still for the Polish government, this would mean working with Brussels and accepting some level of EU control over the border. So, Warsaw prefers to manage alone. Opposition leader Donald Tusk has argued that it is time for NATO to help deal with the situation, which might be a more palatable step for the government.
Other EU countries are already feeling the impact of this crisis. The influx of migrants into Germany via Belarus increased from 500 in August to more than 2,000 in September, to around 4,000 in October. With temporary shelters in its eastern territories now full, Germany has reintroduced controls on its border with Poland. This scenario was foreseen in a classified paper that the German Ministry of Interior commissioned in spring 2021. The document warned that the Russian and Belarusian governments could use migrants to pressure Germany and, in combination with disinformation and covert operations, stir up political dissent 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 organised by neo-Nazi party Third Way. But the leadership is not in a position to do much more than implement these stop-gap measures. Until its next coalition government takes office, Germany will be unable to either lead a unified European response to the crisis or introduce new legislation to cope with it. The minister of interior, Horst Seehofer, is a member of the conservative Christian Social Union and hence scheduled to leave office by 6 December. Meanwhile, the likely members of the next government have diverging views on asylum and migration. For the Free Democratic Party, it would be difficult to submit to the more liberal migration policy that the Greens and the Social Democratic Party would have in mind if there was an acute crisis at the border. So far, they do not perceive the situation in this way. But they could quickly change their minds, given the emergence of footage that shows Belarusian soldiers driving large columns of migrants to the border.
Leaders in Berlin are unwilling to make concessions to Lukashenka as the EU did to Turkey in 2015. Instead, they are discussing targeted measures against airlines and other facilitators of people smuggling. However, such measures would not affect migrants that have already arrived in the EU. And, given Warsaw’s rejection of refugee quotas and refusal to ask Frontex for help, it is difficult for Germany to suggest that the EU provide assistance to Poland. While Seehofer pointed out that Moscow holds the “key to the problem”, he stopped short of suggesting how Germany should influence the Kremlin’s calculations on the issue.
In this environment, the EU has an important role to play. The bloc needs to show that it will no longer tolerate the weaponisation of migration. It is crucial that the EU not enter into dialogue with Lukashenka. As with any form of blackmail, it would be senseless and dangerous to make concessions – because the aggressor will only demand more. This would signal to other authoritarians that such tactics work.
The EU needs to address the root cause of the problem, by continuing to punish Lukashenka for his actions and making it more difficult for Russia to support him. Significantly tightening sanctions is one way to do this. Simultaneously, the EU could help pressure Middle Eastern governments and airlines to block or stop facilitating what is effectively people smuggling (especially in the case of the latter, which continue to do business in the EU market). The EU should help countries neighbouring Belarus protect their borders and assist migrants who reach their territory. But it will be up to these countries to accept such help.
Lukashenka has shown no desire to change tack. He plans to significantly increase the number of flights during winter – even if this means that Belarus will be forced to host thousands of migrants. He is not afraid of deaths at the border. For him, this is about vengeance and is a matter of regime survival – meaning that he is ready to escalate further, and to seek Russia’s backing in the process. Europeans will need to work together to stop his aggression and avert a humanitarian crisis on their doorstep.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.