MOSCOW — Authorities in Belarus have thrown open their country's border with the European Union to human trafficking and potential drug smuggling, a top Lithuanian official said, after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko vowed to punish the 27-nation bloc for sanctions it imposed.
Since Lukashenko threatened to flood Europe with migrants, Belarus has stopped policing its border and is using the flow of asylum seekers as a tool of pressure, Lithuania’s deputy interior minister, Arnoldas Abramavicius, said in an interview. Lithuania set up tent camps for the migrants, mostly from Iraq, but there are fears of a crisis in the winter, when thousands more are expected.
The European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada slapped sanctions on Belarus over its forced landing of a Ryanair flight in May to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Earlier, sanctions had been imposed over Lukashenko’s brutal repression of opposition figures and activists after an election last summer that Western officials and rights groups denounced as rigged.
Lukashenko warned in late June that Belarus would no longer prevent asylum seekers, drugs and even nuclear materials from entering the European Union.
“They demand that we protect them from smuggling and drug trafficking. Even across the Atlantic we hear the calls for help to detain nuclear materials so that they do not get to Europe,” Lukashenko said at a wreath-laying ceremony in the Belarusian city of Brest on June 22, according to the BelTA state news agency.
“You are waging a hybrid war against us and demand that we help you as we did before?” he added. “You are strangling us, systematically and collectively, ruining us, trying to kill our economy and expect us to spend hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars, as before, to protect your geopolitical interests?”
Sanctions are broadened
E.U. sanctions imposed June 24 hit for the first time Belarus’s main export sectors — oil, tobacco and some types of potash, a material used in fertilizers — and restricted the country’s access to European finance and insurance.
“We want to make Lukashenko’s regime run dry financially,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. Also banned was the sale of a wide range of technology that could be used for surveillance.
Rolls-Royce told the Professional Union of Belarusians in Britain that it stopped cooperating with BelAZ, a heavy-transport manufacturing company, and its subsidiaries on June 22 because of sanctions. British American Tobacco is also under pressure over its business with Belarus. A BAT statement said that its Belarus arm, BAT Belarus, would undergo due diligence to ensure compliance with the company’s code of conduct, while an external auditor would examine working conditions at state-owned tobacco factory GTF Neman, which supplies BAT.
In Britain, Belarusians have led protests at the company’s London headquarters, according to the Guardian.
Belarus’s main export product, potash from state-owned Belaruskali, was not included in the latest sanctions. That softened the immediate blow to Belarus — Belaruskali is the world’s biggest potash producer — but it left open the possibility of tougher action later by the West.
“Even if some of the measures have been watered down, they are still ultimately likely to bring some far-reaching consequences,” analyst Mateusz Kubiak wrote in an article for the Jamestown Foundation, adding that the sanctions hit hardest at Belarus’s petroleum exports, a sector that accounts for 8 percent of gross domestic product.
Europe earlier imposed sanctions on dozens of key officials, companies and oligarchs close to Lukashenko, and barred Belarus’s state-owned airline, Belavia, from European airspace. The United States, Britain and Canada announced similar sanctions.
The United States last week also banned the sales of plane tickets to and from Belarus. The European Broadcasting Union on Thursday suspended the state-run Beltelradio company from membership.
'Catching groups every night'
The numbers tell the story. Lithuania’s Abramavicius said 74 asylum seekers crossed from Belarus last year. This year, the number was 636, most of them in June.
In May, 77 migrants — more than for the whole of 2020 — entered Lithuania from Belarus. In June, the figure shot up to 448.
Abramavicius said thousands of asylum seekers could enter the European Union by the end of the year, in an apparent effort by Lukashenko to mimic Turkey’s use of asylum seekers to pressure the Europe Union amid a huge exodus of migrants from Syria and elsewhere in 2015.
“We are catching groups every night. The number is growing. Pressure is growing on the border guards and institutions dealing with asylum procedures,” Abramavicius said. “It’s very clear that Belarus is targeting Lithuania.”
Lithuania is providing haven to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the woman recognized in the West as the rightful winner of last year’s presidential election.
Abramavicius called the use of asylum seekers by Lukashenko “hybrid weaponry.”
The migrants arrive without documents, but 75 percent reported they were from Iraq, he said.
“We have never faced irregular migration from that route. We mostly had low numbers from former Soviet countries in Central Asia like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Now it’s Iraq.”
“They usually don’t know which country they’re entering,” he added. “They only know it’s Europe.”
Buses to the border?
It remains unclear whether Belarusian officials are facilitating the transport of asylum seekers to the border, or merely signaling publicly to people-smugglers that an easy new route to the European Union has opened.
“They are denying any illegal entries and they are not readmitting them. We don’t have proof that they are participating in that,” Abramavicius said.
Four flights a week arrive in Minsk from Iraq.
Abramavicius asserted that Belarus is “inviting” the Iraqis for tourism and issuing tourist visas, sometimes at the airport. From there, organized transport in trucks and buses takes them to the border, less than 95 miles away, he said, based on information given by migrants to Lithuanian officials processing their asylum requests.
Most then crossed the border through forests in groups of 10 to 12 people.
“You can imagine that in such a centralized country like Belarus, it’s impossible to land in Minsk airport, to arrange some buses or truck to get to the borderline, without attracting attention and recognition from the police, border police and security services. The Belarusian security successor of the Soviet KGB is no different.
“Their transfers are organized, that’s for sure. Perhaps it’s not the authorities,” he added. “Perhaps it’s just smugglers.”
Lukashenko warned Europe that he would no longer stop drug smugglers, but so far there is no sign of an increase in drug trafficking, said Abramavicius, although he said he fears that this threat could emerge in coming months.
Other rebuffs to the West
Predictably, Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, is vowing not to bend to Western sanctions. He is shutting down European ties and moving firmly back into the orbit of Russia, the country’s main source of financial support.
The regime’s repressions go on, with closed-door trials, arrests, searches, beatings of prisoners and forced video “confessions.” More than 500 political prisoners are in jail, some for a tweet or displaying the red-and-white colors of the opposition.
Leading opposition figures Sergei Tikhanovsky and Viktor Babariko faced trials recently. Tikhanovsky’s was closed to independent media, diplomats and the public, while supporters struggled to get into Babariko’s. Tikhankovsky is married to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran for president only because he was jailed.
Belarus on June 28 told the E.U. representative in Minsk, Dirk Schuebel, to return to Brussels “for consultations” and announced that it was withdrawing its representative from Brussels. It also suspended a cooperation deal with Europe called the Eastern Partnership.
The European Union pledged more than $3.5 billion in support to Belarus in May on condition it takes a democratic path.
But Belarus on Wednesday fired back again. It ordered the closure in Belarus of two German cultural and educational organizations, the Goethe Institute and the German Academic Exchange Service.
The Kremlin will probably squeeze the Belarusian leader to hasten his country’s integration into a union with Russia that could whittle away at its economic independence.
Meanwhile, Belarus faces a crippling brain drain as its brightest young IT, medical, legal and media experts flee, heading for other countries in Europe and the United States.