The migration crisis in Belarus, the EU’s weaknesses and the scenarios of the Lukashenko regime.
“The migration crisis caused by the Lukashenko regime on the border with Poland highlights that the EU’s external borders can be destabilized from all directions, including from the East…”
Belarus once again occupies an urgent place on the European Union (EU) agenda, this time due to the migration crisis caused by the Alexander Lukashenko regime. The situation has already deteriorated into a humanitarian crisis, and the involvement of the army on both sides of the Polish-Belarusian border is militarizing the crisis, creating dangerous conditions for armed clashes between NATO members (Poland) and the Belarusian forces. Membership of the Union of States with Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization may also lead to Russia’s involvement in a possible military conflict siding with Minsk. The situation is not expected to improve at this time unless Lukashenko gives in as a result of new sanctions (an unlikely option) or diplomatic arrangements, which will give him the appearance of minimal external recognition.
Meanwhile, the European side reiterated that Belarus has “orchestrated” the use of illegal migration as a “hybrid attack” (EU, November 2021). Although the organized transport of migrants from the Middle East to the Belarusian border with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland started in the summer of 2021, the problem only worsened after the flow of migrants concentrated in the Polish direction. Tens of thousands of Polish soldiers have been mobolized to protect the eastern border. The EU has expressed its solidarity with the Polish side and the new sectoral sanctions that will affect Belarusian aviation and tourism service providers from 15 November 2021. At the same time, Brussels has requested border access for organizations humanitarian agencies, without specifying whether the request is also addressed to Poland or only to Belarus.
The new episode of tension in relations with the EU comes almost seven months after the forced descent of the Ryanair plane, created to detain opposition journalist Roman Protasevici. This action by Minsk was the basis for the fourth sanctions package, which targeted not only officials but also 15 companies, some of which were vital to Belarusian industry in terms of number of employees and budget revenue. In addition to companies subject to economic sanctions, there are some 166 people in the EU database (including Aleksandr Lusanko), who face individual travel restrictions and asset freezing, respectively. Despite these pressures against the Belarusian leadership, no serious cracks have yet appeared on the surface of the Minsk regime. On the contrary, internally, the regime is trying to consolidate itself, using an aggressive repressive mechanism against the opposition, media institutions and communication platforms. The persecution perpetrated by the Belarusian authorities has reached enormous proportions: some 35,000 people have been detained since 2020, of which 830 are classified as prisoners of conscience, and the number of NGOs subject to verification and liquidation is almost 270 (EU, November 2021). This grim result goes beyond the cruelty and scale of the crackdown of the civic and political opposition in Russia. At the same time, Lukashenko is accelerating the integration processes with Russia (the Union State) and counts on economic cooperation with organizations in the post-Soviet space, in particular the Eurasian Economic Union (and the CIS, Collective Security Treaty Organization), to mitigate the effects of pressure from the West. Relations with China and other international markets are equally important to the Lukashenko regime.
At the same time, the situation on the eastern front of the EU is aggravated by the intensification of the Russian military presence in the Donbas and Lugansk region segment of the border with Ukraine (about 100,000 soldiers). As a result, the EU runs the risk of again facing several security problems in its eastern neighborhood at the same time. This does not mean more than a greater need for dialogue with Russia, not only on Ukraine but also on Belarus. Thus, Vladimir Putin could become an essential facilitator of the dialogue (already initiated) between the EU or the representatives of the member states (such as the ongoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel) and Aleksandr Lukashenko. The latter seeks the greatest possible external recognition to lower the political profile of the opposition in the exile, headed by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
EU weaknesses on migration
Against the background of the events in Belarus, the EU’s weakness in illegal migration is increasing. The EU cannot effectively prevent or manage illegal migration flows. This deficiency has political and security implications. On the one hand, the issue of migration feeds the Eurosceptic voices that use it to attack open borders and freedom of movement at the European level, without which the Schengen Area would cease to exist. For instance, the 2015 refugee crisis has tested the strength of Europe’s internal and external borders, as well as solidarity between EU states. While Hungary and Poland were among the main opponents of the refugee redistribution mechanism at the time, Germany opened its doors to more than 1 million refugees, mostly of Syrian origin. On the other hand, illegal migration is a generator of insecurity for the EU, which also implies dependence on traditional transit states (Turkey, Libya, Morocco, etc.). Therefore, not only organized criminal networks, but also autocratic state actors are willing to exploit the weakness of the EU (in the past, Muammar Gaddaffi, later Tayyip Erdogan and, more recently, Aleksandr Lukashenko).
The latest data released by the European Border Police and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) shows that the EU continues to face a high number of illegal border crossings. In the first nine months of 2021, the number of illegal crossings was approximately 133,900 or 47% more than in 2019, before the pandemic (Frontex, October 2021). There are six routes by which migrants and refugees attempt to reach the EU, with the busiest being the central Mediterranean (see the Table below).
Table. Number of illegal crossings, January-September 2021
Compared to migrant flows on other routes, illegal crossings at the EU’s eastern borders are the most insignificant (although the rate increased in October-November). However, the EU’s political focus on this geographical dimension appears to outweigh the others for several obvious reasons.
Primo, the events in the eastern neighborhood are the product of an organized transportation scheme for migrants from the Middle East by the Lukashenko regime. This is the first time that large-scale illegal migration has gained air mobility compared to conventional channels on land and see. Such a precedent bothers European decision-makers. That is why the EU has contacted countries of origin and transit (at least 13) to discourage the transport of migrants to Minsk. The possibility of including airlines from these countries in the new package of sanctions against Belarus (fifth) has led to a partial restriction of the movement of nationals of Iraq, Syria and Yemen to Minsk in Turkey. New bans were adopted for flights from Dubai to Belarus.
Segundo, the migration crisis in Belarus stands out, as the EU cannot return migrants entering the Belarusian route. After Lukashenko ordered the cancellation of the Readmission Agreement with the EU (Euronews, September 2021), Belarus has no legal obligation to accept the return of migrants who have transited its territory. This specificity is the main attraction among interested groups (trafficking networks and potential illegal immigrants). Regarding other routes, the EU has signed readmission agreements with its eastern neighbors — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia — and the Western Balkans — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. These agreements are accompanied by visa facilitation or visa liberalization regimes with the EU. In the case of the North African countries, the European side is in difficult negotiations with Morocco (2000), Algeria (2002), and Tunisia (2014). In the absence of the EU, member states can intervene, signing bilateral agreements with transit countries, such as the 2017 Memorandum, renewed in 2019, between Italy and Libya, criticized for leading to serious violations of migrants’ rights (Amnesty.org, January 2020).
Tertio, the migration crisis in Belarus has an imposing geopolitical burden, as it is interpreted as a relapsed violation by the Lukashenko regime, the last time sanctioned for hijacking the plane with European citizens on board. This seems to concern Brussels more than just accusations of instrumentalization of illegal migration, which currently does not ring only in the direction of Belarus. Recently, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis launched accusations about the alleged involvement of the Turkish side in facilitating illegal migration (Greek Reporter, November 2021). In response, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Greece could not resist the flow of migrants if “Turkey opens its doors.” He issued similar statements in March 2020, and the Turkish side has previously threatened to withdraw from the agreement with the EU, which dates from 2016 and expires in December 2021. Under this agreement, the EU returns immigrants who came from Turkey and instead takes over and redistributes Syrian asylum seekers between EU states. For the hosting costs of returned migrants, Brussels has allocated some 6,000 million euros to Turkey. The geopolitical aspect of the migration crisis, which also amplifies the EU’s attention to Belarus, is related to the regime’s violence against the opposition and the population, as well as suspicions of cooperation with Russia.
Lukashenko’s three scenarios
The use of the migration crisis by the Lukashenko regime is due to the fact that illegal migration is a huge vulnerability of the EU. However, this step generates new costs for Belarus, as the EU adopted the fifth package of sanctions that will affect the service sector (aviation, tourism, hotels), involved in migrant smuggling. Even if Lukashenko’s regime is erratic and impulsive, it is not irrational, but uses the migration crisis to reap some benefits. Otherwise, it would mean that Lukashenko is acting against the survival of his own regime. Therefore, at least three scenarios may have some tactical value for Lukashenko: 1) “humanitarian crisis”; 2) “sectoral agreement”; 3) “military altercations”.
The first scenario that is already underway is the “humanitarian crisis”, which may intensify even more. The Belarusian authorities are using the migrants, crowded on the border with Poland, to aggravate the humanitarian situation in winter. On the one hand, Lukashenko ordered the provision of humanitarian assistance to migrants, more than 25% of whom are women and children. On the other hand, representatives of the Belarusian law enforcement agencies are trying to help immigrants to enter Polish territory and the EU, respectively. In September-November, Germany identified nearly 10,000 migrants on the Belarus-Poland route and detained about 400 smugglers, many of them with German passports. In this first scenario, the objective being pursued is of local importance. Therefore, Lukashenko wants to discredit the EU before the Belarusian public and, at the same time, rehabilitate his image by posing as a savior of migrants in need. This occurs in the context of a massive information war, in which Belarus has the backing of Russian officials and the pro-Kremlin press, which demonizes Poland and the Baltic countries, from where the Belarusian opposition in exile operates against the Lukashenko’s regime.
The second scenario points to the intention of signing a “sector agreement” to resolve the migration crisis. Such a scenario would mean that Lukashenko will obtain an aschievement as he will force the EU or political actors representing European interests (like Angela Merkel) to find a common ground to alleviate the situation (apparently underway). Reaching an agreement to help the migrants and stop their offensive on the Polish border could require several components: facilitating negotiations by Russia, allocating financial aid to Belarus, and/or dialogue (at least indirectly) with the Belarusian authorities, currently sanctioned by the EU. Although this can be done through international humanitarian organizations, Lukashenko’s office would like a “roadmap” agreed and implemented with the EU to resolve the migration crisis (Belta, November 2021). He suggested creating a “humanitarian corridor” through Poland or an air bridge to transport migrants directly to Germany. Therefore, Lukashenko believes that a sectoral dialogue with the EU can be established, inspired by the agreements with Turkey in the field of migration. To carry out this scenario, the Minsk regime seeks to obtain at least partial external recognition.
The third scenario is the most negative and could lead to the outbreak of military altercations between Belarus and Poland. The participation of other NATO states is not excluded. However, the same would mean that Belarus will ask Russia for help, which will not hesitate to send its military forces to protect the western borders of the Russia-Belarus Union State. The arming of migrants stationed near the Polish border and their radicalization against the Polish side can provoke challenges with military consequences. Although the Polish-Belarusian border is practically twice as short (396.6 km) as that of Lithuania (678.8 km), which complicates the entry of migrants, the objective of the Belarusian authorities was Poland. One of the main reasons is the lack of Frontex representatives in Poland, which, unlike Lithuania, rejected the assistance of that European agency, whose operational center is in Warsaw. The involvement of the EU or NATO, together with the Polish police and army, could ensure greater coordination. Consequently, this will prevent an escalation of the situation in response to deliberate provocations organized by Lukashenko.
In lieu of conclusions…
The migration crisis caused by the Lukashenko regime on the border with Poland highlights the fact that the EU’s external borders can be destabilized from all directions, including from the East. The crisis also shows that “illegal migration” remains an effective tool in the hands of authoritarian regimes in the European neighborhood, willing to exploit the weaknesses of the EU.
The use of sanctions alone is not enough to stabilize the situation in Belarus, as the Lukashenko regime is rapidly adapting to new external constraints and Russia is providing an oxygen mask. At the same time, the abandonment of the Belarusian case allows the regime to relapse, displaying destructive creativity in the eastern neighborhood of the EU, which could have repercussions in the northern region of the Eastern Partnership, especially on the border with Ukraine. The situation in Belarus requires new, swift and effective approaches to prevent its transformation into another “North Korea” in the EU’s neighborhood. Any action taken must be carefully analyzed (but not delayed or softened) to avoid the unintended consequences of driving Belarus away from the West, while trying to punish Lukashenko. No action should help hasten Russia’s silent and gradual absorption of the country.
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw. Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU’s foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.