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Tensions and fences rise along EU’s borders with Belarus

European Union nations along the Belarusian border are accusing Minsk of sending thousands of refugees and asylum seekers into Lithuania and Poland as retaliation for EU sanctions imposed on Belarus for its crackdown on dissidents.

(CN) — Military tanks, squadrons of police and miles of razor-wire fences are being deployed along the European Union's borders with Belarus to keep out an influx of immigrants and asylum seekers who are allegedly being unlawfully sent into the EU by Minsk in retaliation for sanctions.

Call it part of a “hybrid war” that is dangerously playing out between the EU and neighboring Belarus, a nation of about 9.4 million people that's become a top security problem for the EU since its authoritarian Soviet-style leader, Alexander Lukashenko, brutally cracked down on protests and opponents following an allegedly rigged election that kept him in power in August 2020.

On Thursday, Polish President Andrzej Duda escalated the tensions by declaring a state of emergency along Poland's border with Belarus. Lithuania and Latvia previously declared their own states of emergency.

Critics contend the situation is far from a crisis with slightly more than 4,000 people recorded as seeking to cross these EU borders illegally by the end of July, according to EU data. Making Poland's state of emergency seem even less compelling, 3,700 of those crossings took place in Lithuania, according to Frontex, the EU's border security agency. But Polish authorities say more than 3,000 people attempted to cross into Poland from Belarus in August.

Poland's state of emergency – the first since the end of communism in 1989 – will last for at least a month and overlap with military drills Belarus and Russia are planning for the middle of September along the Polish border. Poland says the military exercises pose another danger.

Since early July, European, Polish and Baltic officials have accused Belarus and Russia of transporting large numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers – many of from Iraq and Afghanistan – by airplanes to Minsk and then pushing them across the borders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. They point to security videos showing Belarusian guards allegedly helping people cross the border and social media posts inviting foreigners to fly to Minsk.

EU officials contend Lukashenko is using asylum seekers as a tool to retaliate against sanctions the EU imposed on the Belarusian regime as punishment for the crackdown on dissidents, including the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger jet passing through Belarusian air space and subsequent arrest of a dissident blogger aboard the airplane. Belarus and Russia deny the accusations.

“We have to stop these aggressive hybrid actions, which are carried out according to a script written in Minsk and by Mr. Lukashenko’s patrons,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday at a news conference in Warsaw.

By sending the military to the Belarus border, Poland is sending a clear message to Lukashenko too. Poland and the Baltic states are urging the EU to be more aggressive in challenging Lukashenko and Russia. They are home to many Belarusian exiles and media outlets critical of Lukashenko.

The Belarusian minister of foreign affairs, Vladimir Makei, called Poland's state of emergency an overreaction and accused the EU of balking at negotiations to resolve the border dispute.

“Nothing was introduced when floods happened in the past or when the pandemic engulfed all of Poland,” Makei said, as reported by BelTA, a Belarusian state-run news agency. “But as soon as 32 refugees appeared near the border, Poland introduced a state of emergency.”

He was referring to a group of 32 people – mostly Afghans – who are making headlines after they became stranded on the border between armed Belarusian and Polish police and soldiers. Activists and medics said they were stopped from helping people in need of food, water and medical attention, according to news reports.

The problems along the Belarusian border began in June when more than 400 people crossed without permission into Lithuania, according to Frontex, the EU's border security agency. In July, Frontex said more than 3,000 people crossed illegally into Lithuania from Belarus. Frontex has sent its agents to the Belarus border too.

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The Lithuanian government called the border crossings an emergency and began construction of a 10-foot-high razor-wire border fence along 315 miles of border it shares with Belarus. The fence is projected to cost 152 million euros (about $181 million) and to be completed by September 2022. Poland says it will build a similar fence along about 93 miles of its border with Belarus.

“The physical barrier is vital for us to repel this hybrid attack, which the Belarus regime is undertaking against Lithuania and the EU,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said recently.

Across the EU, worries are growing over a rise in people seeking asylum in Europe. Frontex said 82,000 illegal crossings into the EU took place between January and the end of July, an increase of 59% from the previous year. The collapse of Afghanistan could lead to even more asylum seekers arriving on EU borders, EU officials say.

The EU is unwilling to see a repeat of 2015 when more than a million asylum seekers and immigrants entered the bloc, most of them refugees from the Syrian civil war.

Back then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her country's borders to refugees, a move that was condemned by many and helped foster anti-immigrant sentiment and support for far-right political parties across Europe. The influx of refugees played a big role in Brits voting for Brexit too.

Since then, the EU has steadily tried to close its borders and stop immigrants with fences, aggressive border policing, blocking refugee boats and paying huge sums to Turkey to house refugees and asylum seekers. The EU's border closings are a subject of intense disagreement and undermine the EU's rhetoric about upholding human rights.

Authorities in Poland and Lithuania are accused of pushing people trying to cross into the EU back into Belarus, a potential violation of international laws meant to protect asylum seekers who are fleeing war, persecution, famine and other dangers.

Many in Poland see the state of emergency as a political stunt by the ruling ultra-nationalist, right-wing Law and Justice party and a strategy to crack down on activists and opposition politicians seeking to help people stuck at the Polish-Belarusian border. The state of emergency forbids large gatherings close to the border, introduces security checks and may squash coverage by journalists and prevent activists from monitoring events.

“They see that they go up in the polls when they simulate a state of emergency,” Dariusz Klimczak, a parliamentarian with the Polish People's Party, said about the Law and Justice party's reasons for declaring the state of emergency. His comment was reported by Gazeta Wyborcza, a Polish newspaper that supports the political opposition.

The Law and Justice party and its right-wing allies lost their majority in the more powerful lower house of parliament, the Sejm, last month after an ally, Jaroslaw Gowin, fell out with the ruling party over tax hikes on independent workers and a law targeting an American-owned television station critical of the government.

On Monday, the ruling coalition's strength to pass legislation with the support of independents and smaller parties will be put to the test when the Sejm meets to approve Duda's declaration of a state of emergency. The Sejm is unlikely to withdraw the emergency declaration, but the Law and Justice party faces a difficult legislative season this fall and there is a possibility for early elections later this year or next spring.

Polish politics are keenly watched in Europe because the Law and Justice party's hold is power is seen as one of Europe's most troubling developments because it is accused of seeking to turn Poland into an anti-democratic, ultra-Catholic state. EU institutions are engaged in wide-ranging legal fight over what many see as the Law and Justice party's unlawful takeover of the country's judiciary.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

Categories: Government International Politics

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