Belarusian Strongman Blinks in Polish Border Crisis

The EU still has a lot of migration questions that it needs to answer, now more urgently than ever

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 18, 2021

Both my colleague Mark Krikorian and I have analyzed the crisis that has been brewing over the past few weeks involving thousands of migrants (primarily Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis) seeking entry into the European Union (EU) at the border between Poland and the former Soviet Republic of Belarus. On November 17, the Washington Post reported that Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has blinked in the standoff between him and the EU over the fate of those migrants —for now.

Lukashenko and EU Sanctions

In my November 16 post, I explained how Lukashenko has become a pariah in Western Europe due to his manipulation (to put it mildly) of the electoral system in his country in a quest to remain in power for almost three decades, and his brutal and ham-handed treatment of political dissent.

That has triggered EU sanctions — a serious problem for Lukashenko given Belarus’s location as a gateway to the economic powerhouse that is Western Europe, and a threat to his continued rule.

Lukashenko’s Use of “Weapons of Mass Migration”

In his National Review article captioned “Weapons of Mass Migration”, Krikorian described how, in a response that veers toward the petulant, Lukashenko’s government has de facto weaponized migrants whose entry into and through Belarus it facilitated to force a crisis in the EU:

Belarus has eased its visa rules to attract migrants from Iraq and other countries in the Middle East and Africa. These migrants are then bused to the country’s western border, where they are given instructions on how to cross into EU countries. On some occasions, they are even supplied with wire cutters to break through any border fencing they might encounter.

Migration Questions in the EU — and the U.S.

As I noted in my post, I recently returned from the EU capital in Brussels, and I can tell you that there is an ongoing intellectual and political struggle among the 27 nation-states in the union over migration and local sovereignty.

Specifically, many of the smaller and less economically powerful EU countries chafe over policies that the larger ones insist they follow, as well as movements within some of the larger ones about those policies, as well.

The arguments that I heard were familiar because they echoed ones that I have heard back home. The Biden administration is openly following policies that objectively facilitate the entry of hundreds of thousands of migrants into the United States, while at the same time all but eviscerating immigration enforcement in the interior.

In response, states (and Texas in particular) affected by those policies and that disagree with them on philosophical and legal grounds have sought recourse in the courts to force the administration to change its ways and enforce the immigration laws.

The tense questioning of DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas by various Republican senators during a heated November 16 oversight hearing is the most patent example of this dynamic. The subject of that hearing (DHS oversight generally) did not specifically concern the administration’s border and interior immigration policies — but you would not have known that from the vast majority of the questions.

Mayorkas was hammered by Republican senators on payments to illegal migrants affected by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policies, the chaos that has been reigning for the past 10 months at the Southwest border, and Mayorkas’s official policy that the illegal status of aliens alone is no longer reason for ICE officers to take “enforcement action against them”.

In a stunning one-man assault on the legitimacy of justice in the immigration courts, Mayorkas defiantly told Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that he does “not necessarily accept the fact that all” 1.2 million aliens under final orders of removal who nonetheless remain in the United States “received due process”.

These are the tensions that exist in a unified 245-year-old federal republic over state sovereignty and national immigration policy. Imagine how these issues play out in a confederation made up of nation-states (some of them hundreds of years old) with 24 official languages that has only had a common currency for 22 years.

Some of the EU nations apparently believe that the more immigration, the better, while others are leery and would prefer to move with greater caution and clearer migration rules. Resolving those differences in the EU presents greater challenges than a simple quadrennial presidential election.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Poland, the site of the latest EU migrant crisis.

Twelve members in the EU bloc want stronger barriers (including on the western Polish frontier), but as I noted in that earlier post, the French state secretary for European affairs made clear on November 16 that his country does not support building a wall between Poland and Belarus, stating: “I am in favor of a Europe that protects its borders, but not a Europe that puts up barbed wire or walls.” Sound familiar?

The Current State of the Polish Border Crisis

Returning to the situation at the Polish border, however, on November 17, the Washington Post reported that Lukashenko has apparently blinked, with buses now moving migrants east away from their border encampments. Migrants have been relocated to centers in Bruzgi, Belarus, which is near the Kuznica, Poland, border crossing that had been the flashpoint for the crisis.

Krikorian posited that this was a possible (if not likely) outcome:

Lukashenko may not ultimately succeed in using illegal immigration to get the EU to lift sanctions; he’s been especially crass and obvious, forgoing even the thin veil of “Nice continent you got there; it’d be a shame if uncontrolled mass migration should happen to it.”

In any event, Belarus’s actions followed a call between Lukashenko and German Chancellor (for now) Angela Merkel on November 15. Merkel was the first EU leader who has had “direct contact with Lukashenko since last year”, or about the time that EU sanctions were imposed in October 2020.

The Post reports that a readout of the call issued by the German government said that the chancellor “expressed concern over the humanitarian situation with migrants”, but that this has not stopped “Lukashenko and his state propagandists from claiming victory Tuesday in their strange parallel universe”.

The 67-year-old Merkel is a short-timer, having announced retirement from the post that she has held for 16 years well in advance of the German national elections that occurred on September 26. Those elections saw her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU) alliance lose seats to center-left Social Democrats (SPD) (although only 10 seats separate the SPD from the CDU/CSU).

A new German government has yet to be formed (there are six major parties, not counting lesser ones like the “German Pirate Party”, which was shut out in the Bundestag), but “Mutti” (“mother”) as the chancellor is popularly known is still a force in European politics.

I am (fortunately) not able to get into the mind of Lukashenko, a rogue “leader” credibly alleged to have tortured his own citizens in political reprisals, but perhaps a simple phone call from the powerful Merkel after being frosted out by the EU for a year was enough for him.

That said, the Post cites one “Artyom Shraibman, founder of Sense Analytics and a Belarus analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank”, who opines that Lukashenko underestimated the unity of the EU in the face of this immigrant crisis.

He explains: “The idea was to find a sensitive topic and to split the E.U. It did not happen.” Lukashenko probably acted reasonably in testing the resolve of the bloc on this issue, because as I noted the obligations of the several countries in the EU toward migrants are an open question and the topic of pointed debate.

On the flip side, Ben Judah from the Atlantic Council is quoted in the Post as explaining that Lukashenko “made it clear to European leaders that he’s not going anywhere ... that he’s strong, that they should not expect revolutionaries to be displacing him anytime soon.”

I am neither a Belarus analyst nor a fellow with the Atlantic Council, but they are likely both right. I have been the father of an (occasionally) petulant toddler and know that tantrums often serve two purposes: To get more gummy bears and to get attention. Even if the lad doesn’t receive the gelatinous treat, he still receives affirmation of his presence when his parents say “No.”

Pressing Questions on Migration Facing the EU

What all of this shows, however, is that the EU has some big questions it will have to answer about how the 27 countries in the union deal — individually and as a whole — with migrants before the next tin-horn dictator sends a wave of foreign nationals to the bloc’s borders to test its resolve.

The French state secretary for European Affairs can be blasé about the need for physical barriers when none of his country’s neighbors are likely to surge migrants through Monaco or Andorra, but to the Poles — who have seen their national sovereignty violated throughout their history — it is a salient issue.

Of course, Warsaw and Krakow were likely not the final destinations of most of the migrants massed at the Polish border. They were probably headed to Paris, Munich, Berlin, Amsterdam, and tens of other cities throughout the western EU, spurred by job opportunities and generous local public benefits.

And thanks to the practically non-existent national borders within the EU’s Schengen Area (“The World’s Largest Visa-Free Zone”), nothing would have stopped their onward progress from the Polish frontier to the west — except for the efforts of the Polish government, and the flimsy barriers that it erected without French help.

To a significant degree, the EU was founded on economics and rhetoric. The removal of internal barriers has allowed products and workers to move freely through the union, with the idea that it would enrich them all.

On the rhetorical side, however, Western Europe saw the damage that centuries of feudalism, dictatorship, and war had wrought on its peoples and its institutions, and decided to take a different path. It has attempted to create a transnational community based on common core principles, including the provision of refuge to the stateless and oppressed and the creation of a strong social safety net.

Adapting these principles to a 21st-century world in which the movement of peoples thousands of miles from their homes — many for purely economic reasons — is relatively cheap and easy (at least by historical standards) presents challenges that the bloc must resolve, as Kuznica shows.

As Milton Friedman, the late Nobel Prize-winning economist explained: "It's just obvious you can't have free immigration and a welfare state." Friedman was an American, but his words ring true in the other 24 official languages of the EU, as well.