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Humanitarian disaster on the Belarusian-Polish border: a crisis against a backdrop of geopolitical conflict

A few thousand migrants piled up on the Polish border were enough to create one of the worst crises between Belarus and the EU. A reactionary “game” against a background of growing geopolitical tensions. This article originally appeared in French in Revolutionpermanente.fr on Nov. 12.

Since last August, the eastern borders of the European Union have seen an unusual flow of migrants, mainly from the Middle East. They have been trying to reach Western Europe from Belarus. The situation worsened earlier this week when between 2,000 and 4,000 migrants arrived at the Belarusian-Polish border, visibly escorted by members of the Belarusian security forces. On the Polish side of the border, the reception was more than hostile. Indeed, it was not only migrants who flocked to the border: it is estimated that at least 15,000 Polish soldiers were dispatched there to prevent the migrants from crossing into the EU territory. The Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian authorities have completely militarized the border areas and declared a state of emergency. The area is also off limits to journalists and humanitarian organizations that would like to help the migrants. On the Belarusian side, security forces are preventing migrants from returning to Minsk, the country’s capital. They are caught between two reactionary policies, forced to spend days and nights in the cold, without access to toilets, and with limited food and water resources.

All indications are that these migrants arrived in Minsk in pursuit of a deceptive promise of easier access to European territory. The Belarusian government has facilitated their arrival in Minsk and travels to the border. In this way, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is emulating the reactionary policy of Erdogan’s Turkey and King Mohamed VI’s Morocco of using migrants to blackmail the EU. Indeed, both regimes skillfully manipulate migration flows to obtain concessions (and funding) from the EU while at the same time doing it a great service by “subcontracting” the management of refugee flows to Europe. The peculiarity of Lukashenko’s case is that while Morocco and Turkey benefit in some way from their geographical position as “gateways to Europe” on the migrant route, the Belarusian regime has fabricated this situation, unscrupulously playing with the lives of thousands of men, women, and children in search of a better future.

According to several analysts, Lukashenko’s objective is to obtain from the EU a relaxation of the sanctions it imposed on the Belarusian regime following the repression of opponents. For its part, the EU denounces a “hybrid attack” by Minsk. This bellicose language tends to dehumanize migrants, emphasizing the military and geopolitical frictions and relegating the real and urgent humanitarian crisis to a secondary level. Moreover, the EU is for the moment firm on closing the borders, standing “as one” behind the xenophobic Polish government. The same goes for sanctions; it even threatens to apply even more sanctions. As one can read in Le Monde: “in addition to extending sanctions against personalities close to the Belarusian president, the German minister declared himself in favour of measures against “economic sectors as important as the potash industry”, the pillar of the Belarusian economy. The country is the world’s second largest exporter of potash, an ingredient in the manufacture of fertilizers. He also floated the idea of sanctioning airlines, including Belavia, owned by the Belarusian state, and several travel agencies, accused of organizing the influx of migrants to the EU.

There are growing fears of a military escalation and an “accident” that could lead to a tragic confrontation in Eastern Europe. Regarding the militarization of the border and this danger, analyst Lukasz Olejnik explains that “the situation has shifted to border tensions that go beyond the attempt to use or stop migrants. There are many indications of this, the most visible of which is the presence of armed and uniformed formations in close proximity to each other on both sides of the border. … So there is a risk that things will get out of hand, deliberately or not. Small incidents can quickly escalate, and there are already reports of clashes. This type of unprofessional behavior, where untrained or undisciplined security forces test the boundaries, is a major escalating factor.

Even if everything seems to indicate that Lukashenko is not seeking (for the moment at least) an armed confrontation, it is true that the region is subject to increasing tensions. And this is where another actor comes into play: Russia. Several Polish politicians have pointed directly to Putin as one of those responsible for the current situation; either by cooperating directly with Minsk or by giving its tacit approval. Indeed, Russia has several disputes with the European Union at the moment, starting with the situation in Ukraine but also gas delivery. In this sense, it could take advantage of the weakening of certain states of the EU, including Poland and the Baltic States, which are very hostile towards Moscow. In recent weeks there have been reports of a significant concentration of Russian troops and military equipment on the border with Ukraine. The latter has recently acquired Turkish drones that have been used to attack positions of the rebels of Donbass, in the east of Ukraine. At the same time, the United States has increased its military presence in the Black Sea in recent days.

Aware of Russia’s influence on Belarus, Angela Merkel called Vladimir Putin to ask him to put pressure on Lukashenko to stop the “inhumane” treatment of migrants. Faced with this hypocrisy, the Kremlin responded with its characteristic cynicism, notably through its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. “Why, when it comes to refugees heading to the European Union from Turkey, has the EU provided funds to keep them on Turkish territory? Why can’t Belarusians be helped in the same way?” he said. In other words, Russia’s only demand on Lukashenko’s policy will be to keep the migrants away from its border, but it is very unlikely that Putin will immediately intervene to make Minsk back down. Instead, he will try to extract as much profit as possible, the most likely being that Russia is truly complicit with Lukashenko.

Indeed, Lukashenko has targeted a very sensitive point in the EU: the migration issue and the relationship between the European institutions and the Central European governments. Indeed, Poland, along with Hungary, have been the countries most opposed to the policy of migration quotas. Theirs has been a reactionary and xenophobic opposition to a no less reactionary and xenophobic policy on the part of the EU’s central powers. The New York Times quotes some analysts who point to this “uncomfortable position” for the Polish government: “The government, which no longer has a clear majority in parliament, is itself politically blocked, Buras said. “The problem is not that the EU does not want to help Poland because of the rule of law,” he added. “It is rather the other way around: it is very difficult for the Polish government to accept help from EU institutions that it is fighting on another front. And the government wants to present itself as the only savior and defender of the Polish people. … [Its] concern–and that’s why it’s so firm–is that if there is even a process to let people in, it will create a narrative that this is a place where people from Iraq and Syria can be dispatched to Europe, and the number will not be 4,000, as it is now, but 30,000,” said Michal Baranowski, the director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund.”

The fact is that the main capitals of the EU can denounce and criticize the “authoritarian drifts” of the governments in Central Europe, but in practice Poland and Hungary have become real “anti-migration glacis” for Germany and the other European imperialist powers. In fact, if a few thousand migrants are putting the EU to the test, it is because it has been built as an imperialist project, by constructing a fortress hostile to the populations who suffer at home the consequences of the plundering, wars and misery for which the main EU powers are responsible. This leads to a thoroughgoing dehumanization of refugees and migrants in general. Thus, too many articles analyzing the situation focus on the frictions and maneuvers of the different governments, forgetting the fate of the migrants. As The Telegraph explains so well, the suffering of migrants does not end when they cross the Polish border. The border is in the middle of the Bialowieiza forest, home to wolves, lynxes and other animals. “Emaciated groups of Middle Eastern immigrants began coming out of the woods in September, to the surprise of the locals, who know only too well how impassable the forest can be. Most of them had spent days without food or water in the wilderness. They generally suffered from hypothermia and exhaustion, and were often sick from drinking the swamp water. Horrified, a number of residents who had already banded together to fight a government logging project in 2017 activated the same networks to offer some kind of help,” it reads.

In the face of this harmful situation on the Belarusian-Polish border, we must remember that it is precisely the EU’s anti-migration policy that allows unscrupulous leaders like Lukashenko to gamble with the lives of thousands of refugees who today crowd the border, women, children and men sleeping in freezing temperatures. It is for all this that the workers’ movement, the working classes in general and the youth throughout Europe must demand the immediate opening of the borders!

Philippe Alcoy is a member of the editiorial boards of the French website RevolutionPermanente.fr and the internationalist platform LeftEast. He researches and writes regularly on news and the history of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Recently, he published “Hongrie 1956: les jours où les travailleurs ont défié le stalinisme” about the Council Revolution of 1956 in Hungary.