Lukashenko mild amidst migrant crisis between Belarus and the EU

  • President Lukashenko is facing a fifth round of sanctions from the EU 
  • However, his phone calls with Chancellor Merkel were the first contact between Lukashenko and a Western leader after the elections in August 2020 
  • Thus, Lukashenko’s temperature is mild and may improve the longer the migration crisis lasts

Why is President Lukashenko mild?

Answer: The migration crisis on the border of Belarus and Poland has so far resulted in a fifth round of EU sanctions for Belarus, but also talks with EU member states. 

An estimated 3000 to 4000 migrants and refugees sit on the border between Belarus and Poland. Although now transferred to a shelter, until recently, they were camping in deplorable conditions which have raised concern for their well being from human rights groups and international organizations. Other migrants have been trying to enter the EU through Lithuania and Latvia. The present crisis has led to accusations that Belarus’ President Alexander Lukasheko is conducting a “hybrid attack” on the EU.  

The European Commission claims that the present migrant crisis differs from past crises as it has been orchestrated by Lukashenko. According to the New York Times, Lukashenko has liberally granted visas to thousands of migrants from the Middle East only to push them towards borders with the EU upon their arrival to Belarus. Moreover, Belurusian authorities have allegedly actively helped migrants cross these same borders. 

The roots of the present crisis stem from the summer of 2020. After elections in August, Lukashenko clamped down on individuals that were participating in anti-government protests. The EU imposed its first round of sanctions for repression and electoral falsification in October 2020.

The second and third rounds of sanctions were imposed for ongoing repression in November and December of 2020.  Later, in May of 2021, the Belarusian government forced the landing of a passenger plane in order to arrest the opposition leader Roman Protasevich. This led to the fourth round of EU sanctions on Belarus in June 2021. 

Lukshenko answered the sanctions by stating that he could no longer seek to hold back the movement of undocumented migrants towards the EU. The recent border crisis therefore appears to be a way for Lukashenko to attempt to resume dialogue with the EU in order to force it to recognize his presidency and to reconsider the sanctions it has placed on Belarus. 

Whether or not Lukashenko will succeed in his goals is yet to be seen. On the one hand, on November 15th, the EU approved a new round of sanctions on Belarus, reflecting that it is united and firm in condemning Lukashenko’s actions. The sanctions are expected to target Belarusian officials and the state airline among others it deems responsible for the present crisis. 

On the other hand, Lukashenko has managed to get the attention of the EU. Germany has begun talks with Belarus, sowing divisions within the union and opening the door for Lukashenko to both get the recognition he seeks and begin negotiating with Brussels. 

What is changing Lukashenko’s temperature?

Answer: Internal divisions within the EU and international criticism will inevitably increase the longer the migrant crisis lasts, ultimately benefiting Lukashenko.

On November 15th and then again on November 17th, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a phone call with Lukashenko to discuss humanitarian aid for refugees. The phone call has not pleased Lithuania, Latvia and Poland who have felt sidelined by Germany in discussions concerning their very own borders. 

Moreover, while Germany claims that the talks do not amount to a recognition of Lukashenko’s regime, the phone call on November 15th was the first contact between Lukashenko and a Western leader since the elections of August 2020. Additionally, Merkel has been passing on the proposals of the EU Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen to Lukashenko. Thus, some Eastern EU member countries claim that Germany is giving Lukashenko both recognition and a place at the negotiating table. 

At the same time, the refusal of Poland to accept the aid of Frontex has attracted a lot of criticism from analysts. Poland has been pushing migrant families in Poland back to Belarus, a practice which has been condemned by the UN Human Rights Office and many NGOs. Moreover, accusations have surfaced that Poland has been using tear gas against migrants. 

In order to ensure that border control is in compliance with EU law, especially fundamental rights, states ought to closely cooperate with Frontex, which Poland has refused to do. As with Poland’s rejection of the rule of law, the EU does not have an easy solution to deal with Poland’s behaviour in the present crisis. As a result, NGOs such as the Norwegian Refugee Council have expressed shock that the EU is unable to handle such a low number of migrants stranded between Belarus and Poland. 

In sum, Lukashenko’s temperature could change from mild to hot if the present crisis continues. Namely, the more time passes, the more difficult it will be for the EU to have a unified stance and avoid international criticism for allowing the humanitarian crisis to happen on its borders with Belarus; inevitably enhancing Lukashenko’s bargaining position. 

What is driving Lukashenko?

Answer: Lukashenko is seeking to improve Belarus’ position vis-à-vis the EU in order to enhance his country’s economic situation and thus, reduce its dependence on Russia.

The allegedly manufactured migrant crisis is intended to serve as retaliation. Lukashenko is hoping to punish Poland and Lithuania for harbouring political dissidents that fled from Belarus, as well as the EU for sanctioning Belarus and failing to recognise his presidency. Although Lukashenko has denied any such intention, he had openly threatened in 2020 to stop trying to prevent undocumented migrants from reaching the EU, claiming that the sanctions had deprived him of the funds to do so. 

Lukashenko also hopes that this crisis will get him to the negotiating table like it has other countries. Turkey, Sudan and Libya have all been incentivized through financial benefits to keep migrants off EU borders. According to Estonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets, Lukashenko demanded during his talks with Merkel for him to be recognized and sanctions lifted in order for the migrant crisis to end. 

Since the summer of 2020, Lukashenko has become more alienated from the West and more reliant on Putin, who has given Lukashenko the economic and political support he needed in order to effectively control the protest movements in Belarus. This surely does not suit Lukashenko who has historically balanced relations between the East and the West in an effort to maintain his country’s independence. 

Indeed, it was expected that after the imposition of EU sanctions in 2020 Belarus and Russia would become more integrated. For instance, there was talk of the creation of a common currency or legislature. However, Lukashenko has been postponing the creation of a union state between Belarus and Russia, to the annoyance of Moscow. 

What does this mean for you?

​​Answer: The current crisis reflects the EU’s general inability to deal effectively with the Russian threat.

The present migrant crisis would not be happening if it went against Russian interests. Despite stating that Russia would continue to fulfill its obligations in supplying Europe with gas, sinking Lukashenko’s threat of cutting gas flows from Russia to the EU, Putin has generally supported Lukashenko in the present crisis. 

Russia has pushed back against Germany’s request that it intervene, urging the EU instead to sit down at the negotiating table with Belarus and leaving Germany with no other choice but to start engaging in talks with Lukashenko. Moreover, Russia has backed Belarus’ military as demonstrated by the overflight of Russian bombers. Finally, Russia’s top diplomats have also supported the legality of Belarus’ actions while condemning those of Poland and other bordering countries. 

In addition to the humanitarian crisis on Belarus’ borders, the EU has had to deal with the movements of Russian troops on the borders with Ukraine. Whether these movements are simply military exercises or have another motive is unclear but the US seems to be concerned. At the beginning of November, the head of the CIA flew to Moscow and the US warned the EU that Russia may be planning an invasion of Ukraine.

Coupled with the energy crisis, all of these events reflect the ease with which Russia can put pressure on the EU to achieve its goals, reiterating previous calls for a clear EU strategy for Russia as it seeks to establish greater strategic autonomy. With a new government in power in Germany and elections around the corner for France, EU citizens should pay attention to what the new leaders of the Franco-German axis will have to say about the EU’s relationship with Russia.