Politics

How Belarus’s Lukashenko attempt to use migrants as a weapon backfired

Migrants warm themselves near a fire as they gather at the Kuznica checkpoint at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Nov. 17. (Maxim Guchek/BelTA/AP)

Migrants warm themselves near a fire as they gather at the Kuznica checkpoint at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Nov. 17. (Maxim Guchek/BelTA/AP)

It’s no longer news that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko unleashed a migrant crisis against the European Union, what is news now is that the gambit has come full circle months after.

Lukashenko’s regime is now in confusion and struggling over what do with thousands of helpless people he enticed from the Middle East and beyond — and the man frequently refereed to as Europe’s last dictator is trying to save face after deliberate attempt to punish his neighbors over sanctions.

A first feasible crack in Lukashenko’s open resistance came Wednesday, during the time that buses took away immigrants from an encampment on the Polish border. That was after Lukashenko spoke by phone Monday with Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, the first E.U.leader to have direct contact with Lukashenko since last year.

The Belarusian state news agency BelTA made visible migrants bedding down on concrete floors in a warehouse and nearby tents at a “logistics center” in Bruzgi. The agency officially announced that officials decided Wednesday to

“move some refugees to other locations.”

Lukashenko asserts to have “resolved” the catastrophe in his discussion with Merkel — without explaining how. in spite of that thousands of immigrants are left within his borders. That puts Lukashenko in the difficult spot of dealing with a problem of his own making while also trying to protect his self-crafted image as the country’s only guarantor of stability and safety.

One option, repatriating the migrants, would be a climb-down after months of carefully building the crisis.

Analysis: Belarus is just the latest country to use migrants as pawn. The West is guilty, too.

Immigrants pelted Polish border guards with stones, shoes and other objects, on Tuesday, at the same time Polish border guards fired back with water cannons. Belarusian state TV aired live coverage with a banner:

“Polish fascists.”

“This is not normal, of course. This is a very volatile, very inflammable situation,”

founder of Sense Analytics and a Belarus analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, Artyom Shraibman said

Migrants wait outside a new camp near Kuznica on the Belarusian-Polish border on Nov. 17, in this screenshot taken from a video obtained by Reuters. (Reuters)

Lukashenko — in power since 1994 nevertheless denied acceptance in European capitals following extensively suspected fraud in elections last year — has been condemned by E.U. leaders and allies for opening a “hybrid attack,” using endangered people and their dreams of reaching the European Union.
Poland and Lithuania, his main targets, sheltered Belarusian opposition figures, activists and journalists who escaped Lukashenko’s strong official action that is taken to punish people who break laws and on protesters after the 2020 presidential election.

The E.U. has foist four rounds of sanctions since October 2020 over the election loud noise and other abuses, inclusive of the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in May to apprehend a journalist.

On Monday, the E.U. agreed to foist a fifth round of sanctions fix on individuals, agencies and airlines involved in enticing the immigrants to Belarus.

“In the end, if you compare this situation to where we were before the crisis, Belarus suffers as a regime and a country. The Lukashenko regime has got new sanctions. It got new problems with its reputation,” Shraibman added.

The German readout of Merkel’s call with Lukashenko said she expressed anxiety over the compassionate situation with immigrants. It noted that she called him “Mr. Lukashenko,” clearly and evidently excluding the title of president.

Still that did not stop Lukashenko and his state propagandists from asserting victory Tuesday in their strange parallel universe.

State TV anchor Grigory Azaryonok was victorious :

“So what do you say now, little Europe? Small but proud Belarus has cut you to pieces. Now everything goes by Lukashenko’s rules, according to his will.”

At center of Europe’s immigrants crisis, tales of how Belarus clears the way — and punishes ‘pawns’ sent back

However judging by the comments of Eva-Maria Liimets, Estonian Foreign Minister, Lukashenko did not get what he wanted in his 50-minute discussion with Merkel. Liimets told Estonian television Tuesday that Lukashenko had asked authoritatively that Europe recognize him as president and lift sanctions.

Shraibman said, “Where is the victory here?” “You’re not being recognized as the legitimate president. You’re being recognized as a leader who is able to create problems and then fix them.

“That is why I don’t perceive this to be a diplomatic breakthrough,” he added.

“It‘s just a matter of hostage relief, in a way: You discuss it with whoever controls the hostages, and Lukashenko definitely controls these people’s destinies.”

It all comes in the middle of a volatile regional backdrop with Russia, Belarus’s main ally, raising anxiety in the West.

Russian forces have built up their presence in southern Russia near Ukraine and Belarus. Antony Blinken, Secretary of State last week cautioned Russia against the “serious mistake” of likely moving into Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists since
2014, sequel to Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula.

“Russia doesn’t pose a threat to anyone,”

Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman responded to Blinken.

Lukashenko has issued scaremonger warnings not long ago that World War III could be imminent, and that he wants “several divisions” of Russian Iskander missiles to protect against what he calls NATO hostility.

Belarus’s Lukashenko warns Europe: Sanction us again and we could cut gas supply

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuanian Foreign Minister asserted in June that Belarusian officials were directly involved in engineering the crisis — asserting that a Belarusian state-owned travel agency within the presidential administration, Tsentrkurort, organized planeloads of immigrants to fly to Minsk and travel onward to the border.

Tsentrkurort did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Migrants settle in a logistics center at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Nov. 17. (Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA/AP)

In August, Dossier Center, the investigative media outlet which is associated with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, exiled Russian businessman published an agreement from May that claims to show Tsentrkurort and another Belarus travel agency, Oskartur, accepting to bring “tourists” from Arab countries to Minsk. The center also reported that Tsentrkurort has issued hundreds of visas to Iraqis, allegedly for “hunting trips,” citing an unnamed former Tsentrkurort employee.

Shraibman said Lukashenko’s goal in encouraging the immigrant calamity was to send a message to European leaders over sanctions and their refusal to recognize his leadership. Yet he had misfired, underrating E.U. unity in the crisis.

“The idea was to find a sensitive topic and to split the E.U. It did not happen,” he said. “On the contrary, the sanctions against the regime are not being softened but strengthened.”

A Polish army soldier rides on the edge of a no-access, 2-mile-wide emergency zone near Kuznica, along Poland’s border with Belarus, on Nov. 17. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Dmitry Bolkunets, Independent Belarus analyst who runs a popular YouTube channel, said a Dec. 8 deadline to enforce U.S. sanctions against Belarusian state-owned potash giant Belaruskali would deepen the regime’s financial problems. Exports of potash, a key fertilizer ingredient, are a major contributor to the state budget.

The phase-in period was planned to allow companies time to find other sources of potash and end trade with Belaruskali.
He stated Lukashenko was almost certainly inspired by a 2015 immigrant cataclysm, when the E.U. offered generous funding to Turkey in return for action to help stem a flood of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. Last week, Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister called on Europe to pay Belarus to help stop the flow of migrants.

“But Lukashenko miscalculated and now there’s no way out,” Bolkunets said.

Migrants trapped in Poland-Belarus standoff: What to know

Analysts say Vladimir Putin, Russian President holds substantial sway over Lukashenko and has so far allowed the crisis to play out.

Still Putin said Saturday that Lukashenko did not consult him before his warning last week to cut off Russian gas supplies to Europe, via a transit pipeline through Belarus. Putin then reassured Europe that the fuel will still flow. Lukashenko has not referred to the threat since.

Ben Judah, a New York-based senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Lukashenko has managed to put himself at the center of E.U. debate.

“He’s made it clear to European leaders that he’s not going anywhere,” said Judah, “that he’s strong, that they should not expect revolutionaries to be displacing him anytime soon.”

In isolated Belarus, everything is being weaponized to keep Lukashenko in power. That includes migrants.

‘They will not come in’: Mounting standoff over migrants on Poland-Belarus border

Polish forces use water cannons on Belarus border as migrants hurl stones

 

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