Growing tensions on PL-BY border raise questions on possible scenarios

The migration crisis on the borders of Belarus with Poland and Lithuania was discussed in the special edition of TVP Wilno’s “Co Dalej” (What Next) programme, broadcasted on several channels of the Polish public television (TVP).

More than 30,000 attempts to illegally cross the Polish-Belarusian border have been prevented since August, according to the Polish Border Guard. The regime in Minsk led by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka invites migrants, mostly from the Middle East countries, and then sends them to the border.

In the vicinity of the border with Belarus in both Poland and Lithuania, states of emergency have been introduced. The law enforcement agencies every day thwart attempts to illegally cross the border by migrants.

“There are a few factors causing Lukashenka to do it now,” Siarhei Pelesa of the Belsat TV said. “He needs legitimation of his reign because he has not had it in Belarus, Belarusian did not elect him president,” Mr Pelesa stressed. “He is not supported abroad either, apart from Moscow and a handful of other countries. This is why he needs acknowledgement and a possibility to do business and talk with him,” he added.

“Moreover, the EU has imposed four packages of sanctions against the regime… and the fifth package is on the table of EU Foreign Ministers,” Mr Pelesa said.

“The third reason is the talks that are scheduled to commence in Vienna for November 22, a ‘preliminary round’ which might feature even four sides: representatives of the West, [Belarusian] democratic forces, Lukashenka’s regime and Russia. The negotiations will concern the situation in Belarus and its future, so Lukashenka exerts pressure before the talks before the fourth package of sanctions comes into force and before the fifth package is imposed,” Mr Pelesa added.

“Lukashenka wants to destabilise the situation in Lithuania,” said Edyta Maksymowicz of TVP Wilno. “He also believes that not all of the countries support the imposition of sanctions on Minsk,” the journalist added.

She also said that Lukashenka personally targets Lithuania because the Belarusian opposition operates there. “But he also aims at Belsat TV, these were Belsat’s journalists who were first imprisoned in a ruthless way,” Ms Maksymowicz emphasised.

“The situation is dramatic, there are reports of regrouping of those people, reports of Belarusian services transporting about 500 migrants in the direction of the border with Lithuania. Lithuanian prime minister already said that the country needs to be ready for a scenario similar to what has happened at the Polish border. There is a high probability that there will be an attempt to force the Belarusian-Lithuanian border,” she said. She added that everyone in Lithuania is aware of the risk that what is currently going on on the Polish border with Belarus may also happen on the Lithuanian border with Belarus.

According to Franak Viacorka, an advisor of the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian regime was preparing to incite the migration crisis as early as in spring this year.

“In the spring, there were reports that the Belarusian Border Guards are searching for some passage through the border and at the same time, multiple tourist agencies in the Middle East have opened. This meant that what we just saw on the border had its beginning in May, if not earlier,” he said.

“Lukashenka thinks that such pressure, such blackmail, may force President Andrzej Duda, President Ursula von der Leyen and the leaders of the EU member states to ask him for help with the migration crisis. He naively believes that such provocations may result in a dialogue with the West, without the need for a dialogue between him and his nation,” said Mr Viacorka.

“I hope all this will push Europe to be more active. What Lukashenka is doing is partially a consequence of the fact that he got away with everything up until now. It has been four months since the migration crisis started, and we are discussing sanctions now. It took four months for the EU even to consider some appropriate actions regarding Lukashenka,” he emphasised.

Siarhei Pelesa pointed out that the incitement of the migration crisis by Lukashenka would not be possible without the backing from Russia with which Belarus has very close economic and military ties as both countries constitute the Union State. In his opinion, currently, Russia is the only power that could force political changes in Belarus and overthrow Lukashenka’s regime.

“At the moment, however, I can not see this happen as weakened Lukashenka, who has no relations with the West is useful to Putin. Just a few days ago he took advantage of Lukashenka when they both signed cooperation agreements and a new, secret, military doctrine of the Union State” Mr Pelesa emphasised.

But the migration crisis is not the only way Lukashenka tries to put pressure on other countries and especially Poland, noted Siarhei Pelesa.

“He targeted the Polish minority and this way he wanted to hit Poland. Even though he tries to hit Poland hard now (with the migration crisis), he earlier tried a more subtle method by going after individual Poles to put pressure on Poland that way,” said Mr Pelesa.

All these persecutions and violence by the regime are in opposition to Belarusian society’s attitudes, emphasised Mr Pelesa, as Belarusians perceive Poles and Lithuanians as the greatest friends of a free Belarus.

“It is Poland and Lithuania where thousands of Belarusians who need to leave their country to migrate. These are specialists from various industries, among them IT specialists, construction workers, mechanics, and they migrate not for financial reasons, but because they could be imprisoned by the regime,” he said. “We are met with solidarity and generosity in Poland. We all remember that historically we all come from the same country, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and even though centuries have passed, this awareness is still within us,” added Mr Pelesa.

Russian interests

Vladimir Putin has become the main player when it comes to the situation in Belarus, said Marek Budzisz, an expert on Eastern affairs.

“Putin’s goals are quite clear and he accomplished the majority of them already. First of all, the agreement on a new military doctrine has been signed (by Russia and Belarus). Secondly, the lease of two Russian military premises has been extended by 25 years. Finally, there are multiple cooperation and integration programmes, there is also a common migration policy and progressing reliance of Belarusian regime and the country’s economy on Russia,” he noted.

Just two years ago the situation was very much different, according to Mr Budzisz. Lukashenka was trying to balance his policies in a way that would allow him to have relations with both the West and Russia, but today he bets everything on Russia, the expert added.

It can not be excluded that the migration crisis may be a distraction aimed at drawing the West’s attention away from Ukraine, where there is a risk of escalation of military conflict between state army and rebels supported by Russia, said Mr Budzisz.

But it is also possible that the migration crisis itself may escalate into a military confrontation between Belarus and Poland, he warned.

“Belarusian authorities claimed that Poland, by bringing its military to protect the border, had broken the Vienna Convention, because it did not inform the other side about such manoeuvres. In a recent interview for one of the Russian newspapers, Lukashenka said that this might be treated as a preparation for a military assault,” Mr Budzisz said, adding that Belarus has also brought military in the border region.

The guests of the programme were Edyta Maksymowicz of TVP Wilno, Siarhei Pelesa of the Belsat TV, Franak Viacorka, an advisor of the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Marek Budzisz, an expert on the Eastern affairs, professor Jarosław Wołkanowski, Artur Ludkowski, the head of the House of the Polish Culture in Vilnius, Belarusian historian Ihor Melnikov, Małgorzata Stefanowicz-Pecela, the head of the Polish Institute in Vilnius and Marek Solon-Lipiński, deputy director of Sales and International Cooperation of TVP.