By Inês Barbosa Caseiro
Vice-President of EuroDefense Jovem Portugal and EuroDefense-Portugal Associate
The last few days have been marked by constant images of the migration crisis unfolding on the border between Poland and Belarus. This ‘hybrid attack’, as European Institutions have dubbed it, comes in the context of a troubled period of relations between Belarus and the European Union, which has been deteriorating since the last presidential elections, in August 2020.
To better understand relations between the country and the European Union, it is necessary to go back in history. Belarus was one of the countries of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). In 1990, it began the process of independence, which was achieved in 1991, the same year in which the USSR fell. Nevertheless, the country enjoys close proximity to the Russian Federation, with whom it has closer political and economic ties than any of the former Soviet republics. Between 1996 and 1999, the two countries signed a treaty on a two-state union, envisaging greater political and economic integration. In geographical terms, Belarus borders Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, members of the European Union (since 2004) and the Schengen area (since 2007), as well as Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
So what is causing the current situation on the border between Poland and Belarus? Relations between the European Union and Belarus have been somewhat strained since their very beginning, with the main differences being the government’s constant violations of human and civil rights and the rule of law. In 2004, the first restrictive measures were imposed by the Union, based on the disappearance of four opponents of the government in 1999 and 2000 and the Belarusian authorities’ lack of readiness for a full and transparent investigation. The following years are positively marked by the active participation of Belarus in the “Eastern Partnership”, created in 2009, with the purpose of supporting efforts in the context of political, social and economic reforms in former Soviet republics; the important role Belarus played as host of the EU-mediated discussions on the crisis in Ukraine and also the release of all remaining political prisoners in 2015 and the successful presidential elections, a turning point that contributed to the lifting of the majority of restrictive measures in February 2016 and the consequent trigger of a package of economic and cooperation-related measures, creating a momentum for a new phase of relations.
Nonetheless, despite efforts towards dialogue, main responsibility of the EU-Belarus coordination group (established in 2016), respect for fundamental freedoms, human and civil rights still lags far behind. For example, notwithstanding the adoption of a human rights action plan for the period 2016-2019, Belarus has not been delivering on its commitment. It is the only country in Europe which still applies the death penalty. On what concerns fundamental freedoms and civil rights, for example, the country continues to violently repress peaceful opposition demonstrations, as was the case in February and March of 2017. The 2019 legislative elections were marked by the deprivation of the opposition of any parliamentary representation, due to the bad practices adopted. It is, however, in 2020 that a real setback is seen in relations between the European Union and Belarus.
Presidential elections were held on 9 August 2020. According to Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy: “during the election campaign, the Belarusian people demonstrated an unprecedented political mobilisation in favour of free and democratic elections. So far, the peaceful mobilisation of society has been accompanied by unacceptable restrictions on the freedoms of the press and assembly, as well as arrests of peaceful demonstrators, domestic observers, journalists and activists (…).” The result of the elections was a victory for Alexander Lukashenko, President since 1994, which led to a huge wave of protests and riots in the country. The European Union, as well as the rest of the international community, considers that the election was not conducted in a free or fair manner and therefore does not recognise the election results and has since then progressively imposed a number of restrictive measures against various persons and entities, mainly due to the acts of repression and intimidation against peaceful demonstrators, members of the opposition and journalists following the elections. In November, the Belarusian President and 15 other persons were included in the list. The democratic opposition, including opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was awarded the 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament.
On 23 May 2021, in an act that jeopardised air safety in European space, a Ryanair flight was forced to land in Minsk, Belarus, and the country’s authorities arrested journalist Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, resulting in the adoption of a fourth package of sanctions in June. As of today, 166 persons and 15 entities are now targeted by these measures, consisting of an assets freeze, a travel ban on EU territories, a ban on Belarusian air carriers of all types from flying over EU airspace and accessing EU airports, and a prohibition on EU citizens and companies from making funds available to persons and entities included in this list.
Following all these issues and measures adopted against the country, Belarus started in June 2021 to organise flights and domestic trips to facilitate the transit of migrants to the EU, first to Lithuania and consequently to Latvia and Poland, most of the migrants having Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian nationality. In the case of Lithuania, the number of irregular migrants arriving in the country is, according to the European Council, fifty times higher than in 2020. This increase is also felt in Latvia and Poland. The European institutions speak of a ‘political instrumentalisation of migrants’, strongly condemning the fact that Belarus takes advantage of migratory pressure and plays an active role in the illegal and clandestine crossing of borders into the Union area. The EU has been engaged in efforts to mitigate the situation, deploying several of its agencies such as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Europol, as well as activating the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism. In addition, dialogue with countries of origin and transit has so far led to Iraq temporarily suspending flights to Minsk and facilitating the return of its citizens from Lithuania.
In recent days, the border between Poland and Belarus, the gateway to the European Union, has been the scene of a genuine crisis. Migrants in inhumane conditions, made worse by freezing temperatures, have gathered in large groups, prompting the Polish authorities to step up their presence on the spot. At the 10-11 November plenary session, MEPs called on the Polish authorities to handle the situation less aggressively and to accept assistance from EU agencies in dealing with the humanitarian situation, expressing regret that this support has so far been refused. The Polish Senate this week approved the start of construction of a physical barrier on the border with Belarus, something that Lithuania is already implementing. This measure was initially refused and condemned by the European Commission, however Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said on an official visit to Warsaw that “we are facing a brutal hybrid attack on the borders of the European Union. We have opened the debate about financing a physical structure on the border and the issue should be resolved quickly, because the Polish and Lithuanian borders are European borders.” Also in the European Parliament the issue of the wall is a matter of discord.
The situation seems to deteriorate even more now that Russia, Belarus’ strong ally, is holding a series of joint exercises with the Belarusian armed forces in the border area with Poland. Lukashenko’s government claims that the exercises are intended to test their ability to respond to the worsening situation. Josep Borrell, representing the European Union, rules out the use of military means for the time being.
On 15 November, after having already partially suspended the application of the visa facilitation agreement with Belarus, the European Union extended the scope of the sanctions already in place: they may now target persons and entities that organise or contribute to activities that facilitate the illegal crossing of the EU’s external borders. This follows the European Council of 21-22 October, where European leaders declared that they would not accept any attempt by third countries to exploit migrants for political ends, that they condemned all hybrid attacks at the EU’s borders and would react accordingly. Josep Borrell said: “This behaviour shows the cynicism of the Belarusian regime which, by fomenting the crisis at the EU external borders, is trying to divert attention from the situation in the country, where brutal repression and human rights violations are continuing and even worsening. The EU strongly condemns the Lukashenko regime for deliberately endangering the lives and welfare of the people. In addition to violating international law, he disregards the fundamental human rights to which Belarus has committed itself.”
The situation requires, at this moment, the rapid reaction of the European Union, faced with a scenario where the lives of human beings are put at stake and instrumentalised by an authoritarian state, where Russia seems to play an important role. Migratory issues being a subject that, for many years, divides the Member States of the European Union and the institutions themselves, as the construction (or not) of a possible wall indicates, a fast response is only a faraway thought. In the meantime, the cold frontier between Poland and Belarus will be home to hundreds of migrants, pawns in a game that does not seem to end.