On the border of Poland and Belarus

Image: Brett Sayles
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By GILBERTO LOPES*

They claim that globalization is a fact, while building a wall in Eastern Europe

Globalization is a fact. We are all connected, say some of the most authoritative voices in the Western political world, as Europe prepares to build a 5,5-metre-high wall between its Polish border and neighboring Belarus.

Madeleine Albright, secretary of state between 1997 and 2001, in the Clinton administration, recalls, in one of her most recent books (Fascism, a warning), of a conference, in which more than one hundred nations participated, of the “Community of Democracies”, held in Poland in 2000. An attempt similar to the one promoted by the current administration, convened for the 9th and 10th of December.

“We were thrilled with the high turnout and the apparent sincerity of the commitments made,” says Albright. “I left Poland thinking that, in the battle for world opinion, democracy held – more than ever – the highest place in history. I didn't know then what the new century would bring us”.

 

Crowd of immigrants at the border

“Thousands of migrants cross our borders, flooding our societies,” wrote Feliz Bender, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of KU Leuven in Belgium. His concern is with those who qualify these migrants as “weapons” to destabilize Europe.

A type of rhetoric that part of the press, the European Commission and many politicians from the member countries of the European Union (EU) “use to describe the situation on the border between Belarus and Poland”. He considers this language dangerous as it turns migrants into weapons. “They're not the danger, they're just being used as weapons,” says Bender. In this case, he says, they are being used by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who opened his borders so that these migrants can enter neighboring countries and, once in EU territory, move freely to a destination country, mainly Germany.

Lukashenko's aim is to press for the EU to remove or reduce sanctions imposed on it last year after major protests in the country following elections held in August. The opposition alleged fraud, the United States and the EU supported them, while Lukashenko and Moscow accused the West of promoting a “color revolution”, the new form of social protest that seeks to replace troubled governments with politically closer ones.

Something similar had already happened in Ukraine, where a regime close to Moscow was replaced by a Western ally, provoking a Russian reaction with the annexation of Crimea and resulting in a virtual civil war in the country. To which the EU and the United States responded with sanctions against Russia.

Lukashenko quelled the rebellion in Belarus, but pressure against his government continues. Based in neighboring countries, especially in Poland and Lithuania, the opposition has a rearguard from which to operate safely. Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, is just 180 km from Minsk, capital of Belarus. The Polish border is less than 350 km from Minsk, and the Russian border is about 260 km away.

Belarus has been inviting people from Iraq and elsewhere (such as Syria and Afghanistan) to fly to Minsk, offering them a route into the EU, says Lukasz Olejnik, a consultant and former adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Little by little, this migration has settled in refugee camps on the borders with Poland and Lithuania, whose authorities are trying to prevent their entry, increasing police and military presence and installing improvised barbed wire barriers. The situation, says Olejnik, is not just a political crisis, but also a humanitarian crisis, as winter approaches with temperatures at freezing levels.

 

Hybrid attack, brutal and violent

Poland accuses Belarus of promoting new forms of war, of carrying out a “hybrid attack”, and Polish public opinion, inflamed by the denunciations, calls for the sending of troops to the border.

In early November, there were already around 20 Polish soldiers on the border, says Olejnik, adding that this type of data on the other side is less well known. The danger is that the situation will deteriorate further and that any provocation will result in what he calls “genuine violence”. In other words, in a war.

The European Union will respond to Belarus' "hybrid, brutal, violent and undignified attack", European Council President Charles Michel said on a visit to Warsaw last week. Despite the difficult EU relations with Poland, Michel went to Warsaw to support the Polish government's border measures. Among them, the construction of a barrier, described in detail by the Polish authorities. "The barrier we are going to build on our border with Belarus is a symbol of the Polish state's determination to limit mass illegal immigration into our country," said Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski. Sentenced in 2015 to three years in prison for abuse of power, Kaminski, who was also head of Polish secret services, was pardoned by President Andrezej Duda.

The barrier will be built along 180 km, in the Podlasie region, in the northeast of the country: five meters high in steel, with half a meter of barbed wire on top, controlled by modern electronic methods, such as sensors and cameras, along the entire length of the border.

A solution based on the experience of other countries (such as the United States, Greece, Spain and Hungary), said Kaminski. Soon, similar barriers will be built on the borders of the Baltic States (Latvia and Lithuania) with Belarus, countries with which Poland is coordinating its border control policies.

Michel was in favor of the idea that member states of the European Union (EU) could use community funds to finance the construction of walls on their borders. While such barriers can be controversial, especially from a human rights perspective, there are many examples of walls built for reasons of border stability. More than 60 have been built since the 1800s. Among them, the “most infamous”: the Berlin Wall, says Olejnik. In the case of Poland, he adds, “it is not clear that there is another realistic solution”.

 

A migration crisis that generates another…

Michel avoided referring to the conflict triggered a few weeks ago by a controversial decision by the Polish Constitutional Court, which placed national legislation above Community law. A shot below the EU's waterline, which threatens its entire legal tangle.

In fact, the controversy comes from before, with accusations against measures by the ruling Polish party, Law and Justice, which the European institutions describe as “illiberal” and which even bother the conservative coalition of the “populars”, the largest in the European Parliament. . Polish parliamentarians are part of a smaller group, the “European Conservatives and Reformists”. The reform of the European migration system is one of his priorities.

In this scenario, Belarus is threatening measures against the EU, including cutting gas supplies, just at the beginning of the European winter, while Poland assumes a leading role at the European border, behind which it obliges its EU partners, even now very critical, aligning themselves.

As the journalist and filmmaker Tomasz Grzywaczewski said, the charming town of Usnarz Gorny, in the northeast of the country, represents, for Poles, the “end of the world”, where a narrow dirt road, surrounded by a dozen modest wooden huts , ends at the border with Belarus. On the other side are the refugee camps.

A military escalation could force NATO forces to intervene in support of Poland, and eventually other Belarus neighbors, where the opposition, silenced by Lukashenko, would find new spaces to demonstrate. Thus, for both the Polish government and the EU, an escalation of the conflict could serve their political interests.

In this volatile context, in which some might think that a military confrontation would offer them advantages, nothing else is needed for conflict to break out. If that happened, NATO forces would be facing the Russian border, with the risk of a larger confrontation of unimaginable dimensions.

 

Long list of interventions

Grzywaczewski recalls the dramatic migratory result of a long list of Western political and military interventions in the Middle East and North Africa.

During the long migration crisis of 2015-16, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan negotiated with Europe for six billion dollars in aid and a less critical look at its military operations against Kurds, in exchange for blocking the migration corridor between the East and East and the Balkans.

In North Africa, after forces backed by European countries and the United States overthrew and assassinated Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi in 2011, the country has become the main transit point for migrants from the Sahel to Italy. In March, the interim Prime Minister of Libya, Abdul Hamid Dbeibé, warned the international community that his country was not in a position to face this problem alone.

Months later, in May, it was the Moroccan monarchy that facilitated the assault of thousands of migrants on the enclave of Ceuta, in protest against the decision of the Spanish government to allow the leader of the Saharawi independence movement, Brahim Gali, to fall ill with Covid-19 , receive medical care in the country.

 

Approaching the borders

But, said Grzywaczewski, “while such problems are commonplace in southern Europe bordering Africa, they were not common on the EU's eastern flank. Nobody is prepared for such a scenario”, he adds, and Poland and the Baltic countries have to adopt an urgent and effective system to protect their borders and prepare for provocations, “which could result in fatalities”. Again, the idea of ​​war.

Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz expressed concern about the Zapad-21 joint military exercises between Belarusian and Russian forces. German Chancellor Angel Merkel, in what could be her last intervention on the international political scene before stepping down, spoke to her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, urging him to intercede with his ally Lukashenko to end the migration, which she described as “inhumane and unacceptable”.

The German chancellery announced that new sanctions against Lukashenko will be considered, including against third countries that may be supporting his migration project. In a letter, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer thanked Poland for protecting the EU's common external border and offered to deploy German police officers from the region to support Poland.

In a session of parliament last week, Polish prime minister, banker Mateusz Morawiecki, blamed Russia for the crisis, and Putin for trying to rebuild the Russian Empire. "If Lukashenko is going to heat up the situation, the European Union, and I can't doubt that, including NATO will get involved," said Latvian defense minister Artis Pabriks in an interview with local broadcaster. LR4.

Putin denied any interference in the problem and suggested to Merkel that Europe discuss it directly with the Belarusian government. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed that Western countries, including EU and NATO members, are at the root of the crisis, accusing them of promoting protests to install regimes attuned to their way of life and their vision of democracy.

The Belarusian escalation coincides with as yet unexplained movements of Russian military equipment towards the Ukrainian border which, according to specialized journalists from the Foreign Policy, Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer, caused alarm in Washington and Europe.

Despite pledges by Turkish and Belarusian airlines to stem the flow of migrants, the crisis is far from resolved, says a report in the British newspaper. The Guardian. "Thousands of people remain in Belarus, and thousands more are desperate to join them," the statement reads.

Rashwan Nabo, a Syrian aid worker, tells the story of his cousin, Ferhad Nabo. At the age of 33 and with two children, Nabo died in a collision with a truck, fleeing from the Polish police. “People will never stop trying to get to Europe. Blocking the border with barbed wire will not deter people like my cousin Ferhad, who are fleeing war and poverty. People will simply never stop finding another way to get to Europe.”

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). author of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

 

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