MOSCOW — Months after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko unleashed a migrant crisis against the European Union, the gambit has come full circle.
A first possible crack in Lukashenko’s defiance came Wednesday, when buses took away migrants from an encampment on the Polish border. That came after Lukashenko spoke by phone Monday with Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, the first E.U. leader to have direct contact with Lukashenko since last year.
The Belarusian state news agency BelTA showed migrants bedding down on concrete floors in a warehouse and nearby tents at a “logistics center” in Bruzgi. The agency reported that authorities decided Wednesday to “move some refugees to other locations.”
Lukashenko claims to have “resolved” the crisis in his conversation with Merkel — without detailing how. But thousands of migrants are left within his borders. That puts Lukashenko in the difficult spot of dealing with a problem of his own making while also trying to protect his self-crafted image as the country’s only guarantor of stability and safety.
One option, repatriating the migrants, would be a climb-down after months of carefully building the crisis.
On Tuesday, migrants pelted Polish border guards with stones, shoes and other objects, while Polish border guards fired back with water cannons. Belarusian state TV aired live coverage with a banner: “Polish fascists.”
“This is not normal, of course. This is a very volatile, very inflammable situation,” said Artyom Shraibman, founder of Sense Analytics and a Belarus analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.
Lukashenko — in power since 1994 but denied recognition in European capitals after widely suspected fraud in elections last year — has been denounced by E.U. leaders and allies for opening a “hybrid attack,” using vulnerable people and their dreams of reaching the European Union.
His main targets, Poland and Lithuania, sheltered Belarusian opposition figures, activists and journalists who fled Lukashenko’s crackdowns on protesters after the 2020 presidential election.
The E.U. has imposed four rounds of sanctions since October 2020 over the election tumult and other abuses, including the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in May to arrest a journalist.
On Monday, the E.U. agreed to impose a fifth round of sanctions targeting individuals, agencies and airlines involved in luring the migrants to Belarus.
“In the end, if you compare this situation to where we were before the crisis, Belarus suffers as a regime and a country. The Lukashenko regime has got new sanctions. It got new problems with its reputation,” Shraibman added.
The German readout of Merkel’s call with Lukashenko said she expressed concern over the humanitarian situation with migrants. It noted that she called him “Mr. Lukashenko,” pointedly omitting the title of president.
But that didn’t stop Lukashenko and his state propagandists from claiming victory Tuesday in their strange parallel universe.
State TV anchor Grigory Azaryonok was triumphant: “So what do you say now, little Europe? Small but proud Belarus has cut you to pieces. Now everything goes by Lukashenko’s rules, according to his will.”
But judging by the comments of Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets, Lukashenko did not get what he wanted in his 50-minute conversation with Merkel. Liimets told Estonian television Tuesday that Lukashenko had demanded that Europe recognize him as president and lift sanctions.
“Where is the victory here?” said Shraibman. “You’re not being recognized as the legitimate president. You’re being recognized as a leader who is able to create problems and then fix them.
“That is why I don’t perceive this to be a diplomatic breakthrough,” he added. “It‘s just a matter of hostage relief, in a way: You discuss it with whoever controls the hostages, and Lukashenko definitely controls these people’s destinies.”
It all comes amid a volatile regional backdrop with Russia, Belarus’s main ally, raising alarms in the West.
Russian forces have built up their presence in southern Russia near Ukraine and Belarus. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week warned Russia against the “serious mistake” of possibly moving into Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists since 2014, following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
“Russia doesn’t pose a threat to anyone,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to Blinken.
Lukashenko has issued alarmist warnings recently that World War III could be coming, and said he wants “several divisions” of Russian Iskander missiles to protect against what he calls NATO aggression.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis claimed in June that Belarusian authorities were directly involved in engineering the crisis — claiming that a Belarusian state-owned travel agency within the presidential administration, Tsentrkurort, organized planeloads of migrants to fly to Minsk and travel onward to the border.
Tsentrkurort did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
In August, the investigative media outlet Dossier Center, which is associated with exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, published an agreement from May that purports to show Tsentrkurort and another Belarus travel agency, Oskartur, agreeing to bring “tourists” from Arab countries to Minsk. The center also reported that Tsentrkurort has issued hundreds of visas to Iraqis, purportedly for “hunting trips,” citing an unnamed former Tsentrkurort employee.
Shraibman said Lukashenko’s aim in fostering the migrant crisis was to send a message to European leaders over sanctions and their refusal to recognize his leadership. But he had miscalculated, underestimating E.U. unity in the crisis.
“The idea was to find a sensitive topic and to split the E.U. It did not happen,” he said. “On the contrary, the sanctions against the regime are not being softened but strengthened.”
Independent Belarus analyst Dmitry Bolkunets, who runs a popular YouTube channel, said a Dec. 8 deadline to enforce U.S. sanctions against Belarusian state-owned potash giant Belaruskali would deepen the regime’s financial problems. Exports of potash, a key fertilizer ingredient, are a major contributor to the state budget.
The phase-in period was designed to allow companies time to find other sources of potash and end trade with Belaruskali.
He said Lukashenko was probably inspired by a 2015 migrant crisis, when the E.U. offered generous funding to Turkey in return for action to help stem a flood of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on Europe to pay Belarus to help stop the flow of migrants.
“But Lukashenko miscalculated and now there’s no way out,” Bolkunets said.
Analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin holds considerable sway over Lukashenko and has so far allowed the crisis to play out.
But Putin said Saturday that Lukashenko did not consult him before his threat last week to cut off Russian gas supplies to Europe, via a transit pipeline through Belarus. Putin then reassured Europe that the fuel will still flow. Lukashenko has not mentioned the threat since.
Ben Judah, a New York-based senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Lukashenko has managed to put himself at the center of E.U. debate.
“He’s made it clear to European leaders that he’s not going anywhere,” said Judah, “that he’s strong, that they should not expect revolutionaries to be displacing him anytime soon.”