The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In border crisis between Belarus and Lithuania, salvos fly in ‘propaganda war’

Lithuanian army soldiers install razor wire on the border with Belarus in Druskininkai, Lithuania, on July 9. (Janis Laizans/Reuters)

MOSCOW — Belarus calls it shocking: state media reports on an Iraqi migrant who died while trying to cross into Lithuania.

Lithuania calls it fiction: a story invented by Belarus to smear its neighbor amid a growing crisis in which migrants have been used as pawns by Belarus’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

Amid the conflicting accounts, Lukashenko is raising the stakes in his showdown with the West as his country grows more isolated, his crackdowns on dissent widen and his tactics grow more defiant — including opening routes for thousands of migrants, mostly Iraqis, to stream into E.U.-member Lithuania over the past months.

Belarus’s accusations against Lithuanian border guards came as Belarusian Olympic runner Krystsina Tsimanouskaya flew to Poland to seek asylum, saying she was afraid to fly home to Belarus after criticizing her country’s Olympic team.

When Belarusian state media on Wednesday reported the death of an Iraqi migrant near the Lithuania-Belarus border late on Tuesday, Lukashenko blamed Lithuania, slammed the border shut and called neighboring countries “Nazis.”

What you need to know about Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko

Belarusian state television aired footage of the bruised and battered body of a man it identified as Jafar Hussein Yusuf Al-Haris, 39. It broadcast an interview with two men described as relatives, flown in from Iraq on Thursday to claim the body.

But Lithuania dismissed the entire story as a fabrication.

Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite called the report “nonsense, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale,” and Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte dismissed it as disinformation.

“We know perfectly well the stories that have already been used more than once in propaganda wars,” she said Thursday. “I think that this is what could have been expected, since we have heard such lies before.”

Lukashenko, smarting from tough Western sanctions, has tried to strike back by exporting chaos and accusing Western neighbors of plotting a coup against him. He warned Thursday that the deepening border crisis was a “very dangerous situation” that could trigger an armed conflict.

“We warned them, so let them think,” he said, referring to Lithuania. “But to get to the point of killing people and throwing them half-dead on our territory — well, Nazis is all that can be said about them.”

But analysts say his use of a migrant crisis to destabilize neighbors is unlikely to trigger any rethink on Western sanctions over his violent crackdown on the opposition after last summer’s presidential election, which touched off massive protests over widespread assertions that the outcome was rigged to keep Lukashenko in power.

How Lithuania became a target for Belarus

“Lithuania is saying this is disinformation, and I think we should be very careful about any information that comes from Belarusian state media or the Belarusian government because of the horrendous track record of the Lukashenko government and any agency associated with his government,” said Sofya Orlosky of Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank.

Lithuania says the sudden flood of around 4,100 migrants from Belarus — compared with around 70 the previous year — is part of Lukashenko’s “hybrid aggression” in revenge for the sanctions.

In June, Lukashenko threatened to stop policing Belarus to prevent a flood of refugees and drugs to Europe. Cue a flood of migrants, mainly Iraqis, who arrived in Belarus on tourist visas. They fly in by plane and are ferried in vans to the border with Lithuania. Iraq Airways on Friday suspended flights to Minsk for a week.

Lukashenko, backed by Moscow, has grown bolder on other fronts.

In May, a Belarus military jet intercepted a civilian Ryanair plane to arrest Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist from pro-opposition online news outlet Nexta, and his Russian companion, Sofia Sapega, a law student.

Belarus authorities fabricated a story of an emailed bomb threat against the plane, traveling from Athens to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. But it turned out the email was sent after the plane was actually intercepted. Western planes are now forced to skirt Belarusian airspace.

Thousands of people have fled Belarus for neighboring countries amid Lukashenko’s crackdown on opposition figures, human rights activists and journalists. On Tuesday, police in Ukraine said Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov was found dead in the capital, Kyiv. No connection has been made linking the death to Lukashenko’s regime, but it unnerved Belarusian exiles across Europe.

With Belarus isolated from the West, Russia’s Putin stands by its ally

On Tuesday, Lithuania’s Interior Ministry published video that it said could show Belarusian border guards herding migrants into Lithuania. Helicopter video showed a group of people moving toward the Lithuanian border, escorted by a vehicle that resembles a chunky Belarusian border guard SUV.

The ministry said the video from Frontex, Europe’s border control agency, was apparent evidence of official Belarusian involvement in the trafficking. Frontex sent dozens of border staff to reinforce Lithuania’s border last month.

Belarus’s past use of disinformation fueled doubts about the story of the border casualty of the Iraqi migrant. Critics, including pro-opposition media, said there was no evidence of how the man died, or even if he died.

Belarusian border guards claimed he was discovered by local residents near the Benyakoni border crossing late Tuesday, the same day Lithuanian border guards began the controversial strategy of turning migrants back to Belarus. They said the man was badly beaten and died in their care.

Lukashenko immediately took personal control of the case. By Thursday, two men identified on state television station ONT as his relatives appeared in a state TV interview.

“He’s unarmed. He’s not a terrorist,” said a man described as his brother. Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said it was following the case closely and warned citizens not to fall victim to people traffickers.

Belarus once cultivated high-tech talent. Now these people are fleeing.

Orlosky said that by crushing civic action at home and destabilizing neighbors, Lukashenko posed a threat to European democracies.

“The drastic escalation of repression in Belarus should not be taken lightly because everything that Lukashenko does right now, and the impunity with which he is doing it, emboldens other dictators,” Orlosky said.

Lithuanian border guards on Wednesday pushed 300 migrants back into Belarus, accepting 19. On Thursday, they stopped 100 migrants and admitted two.

Rokas Pukinskas, spokesman for the Lithuanian State Border Guard Service, said the report on the death of an Iraq migrant was “fake news.”

“No physical force was used while returning migrants to Belarus,” he said in an emailed response to questions.

Poland reported Thursday that migrants had begun appearing at its border with Belarus. It received 133 people, including children, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan. Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wasik said Minsk was using migrants as “a living weapon.”

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis warned Thursday of indications that Belarus was opening up new smuggling routes, apparently by air, from Morocco and Pakistan.

“Obviously, they are trying to have more than one route to Minsk. It’s probably either an attempt to increase the migrant flow, which is dangerous for both Lithuania and the EU, or they are looking [at] how to replace the Iraqi route if the E.U. manages to close it.”

Belarus: What you need to know

Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, is often called the “last dictator in the heart of Europe” by his foes. His iron grip is aided by a close alliance with Russia. But Lukashenko and his regime has become increasingly isolated from the West for crackdowns on opposition and elections widely viewed as rigged.

What you need to know:

In Belarus, even wearing red-and-white socks can land you in trouble

How Belarus went from high-tech hub to a brain drain

As the pandemic hit, Lukashenko advised vodka and saunas

How Lukashenko intercepted a commercial plane carrying an opposition journalist

For Belarus, Russia has been a lifeline for decades. Here’s why.