Lukashenko’s Gambit: Retribution for Persecution?
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
With the fall of Kabul and the Western-backed Afghani government losing control of the country in a matter of weeks, there has been a surge in refugees seeking asylum to Europe. Belarusian authorities at the behest of Lukashenko have been taking in thousands of Afghani and Iraqi refugees sending them across their western border putting stress on the European Union’s (EU) immigration infrastructure.
However, this action has also inadvertently placed thousands of refugees in diplomatic limbo. With Poland and Lithuania taking a hardline approach to the inflow of refugees and Belarus refusing to take them back, these asylum-seeking Afghani’s have been reduced to diplomatic chess pieces.
Belarus’s decision to weaponize refugees and create an aurora of chaos among Eastern European EU member states must be understood in the context of the continual duel between Lukashenko and his Western European counterparts. For the past year, Lukashenko has turned towards more aggressive authoritarian behavior after cracking down on pro-democratic protests that followed his widely criticized election. Many EU nations and Western allies like the United States sided with the protesters, viewing the last presidential election as corrupt and responded with economic sanctions. However, sanctions and protests have not deterred Lukashenko from silencing his opponents and clamping down on who he sees as political dissidents.
On May 23, 2021 a RyanAir flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted mid-flight to the Belarusian capital of Minsk. According to unverified reports from the Belarusian transit authority, air traffic controllers contacted the aircrafts pilots and notified them of a bomb threat. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was sent to escort the plane to Minsk. One of the passengers aboard the RyanAir flight was journalist Roman Protasevich. Protasevich is a journalist and political activist who is the founder of the Nexta channel, which has been used to organize mass protests and work around heavy state censorship. The chaos seemed to be an attempt to forcefully extradite a political dissident by Lukashenko to further silence critics abroad. After the plane landed in Minsk, Protasevich was arrested by state officials.
Belarus claimed that the reasoning behind the flight diversion was due to a bomb threat emailed from the Palestinian militant group Hamas. However, Hamas denies any involvement in the matter. Lukashenko gave a speech to the Belarusian parliament telling them that the email originated in Switzerland but Swiss authorities have not supported these claims. The incident drew swift condemnation from the international community and more sanctions were imposed by all member states of the European Union and the United States.
Although EU member states and Western allies keep applying economic pressure through the form of sanctions, it still has not deterred Lukashenko from continuing to consolidate power while silencing political opponents. Earlier this month, senior opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava was sentenced to 11 years in prison by a Belarusian court. Kalesnikava was the leader of the Opposition Coordination Council which spearheaded protests in Minsk after the results of last year's fraudulent election. She was charged with conspiracy to seize power, calling for action to damage national security, and calling for actions damaging national security using media and the internet. Belarusian authorities gave Kalesnikava the option of leaving the country in exile, however, it was reported that she ripped her passport and opted for arrest. At the same sentencing hearing for Kalesnikava, Maxim Znak, another member of the opposition council, received a 10 year sentence for similar charges. Lukashenko’s primary opponent in last year's presidential election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, condemned the trial and called for their immediate release.
Although Lukashenko’s determination to consolidate political power has drawn the ire of the West in the form of economic and political sanctions, he has still decided to weaponize the inflow of Afghani refugees into Eastern Europe. By choosing to send thousands of refugees into Poland, Lithuania, and other Eastern European EU member states, Lukasheko is deliberately causing an immigration crisis for the European Union. However, this new found migrant crisis has deeper political ramifications for a myriad of EU member states.
To understand this new migrant crisis, an analysis of the 2015 European migrant crisis is crucial. In 2015, 1.3 million migrants traveled to Europe seeking asylum. Fleeing from the Syrian Civil War and political insurgencies in Nigeria and Pakistan, millions of men, women and children desperately sought refuge in Europe. Many Central and Western European countries such as Germany opened up their borders and accepted thousands of refugees and asylum seekers.
However, in many Eastern European countries this was not the same narrative. In countries such as Poland, conservative right wing parties such as Law and Justice (PiS) used the refugees to push their anti-immigrant political agenda. Parties such as PiS used fiery rhetoric to vilify refugees and stir up national fears towards asylum seekers which in turn resulted in favorable election outcomes for the party. The 2015 European migrant crisis had exacerbated underlying tensions between refugees and conservative right wing parties. For decades, conservative parties have lamented immigrants and refugees as the root causes of a myriad of political issues ranging from economic stagnation to a weak job market. When the migrant crisis arose, accompanied by a stagnant economy and resentment towards their western European counterparts, these parties used the refugees and immigrants as a scapegoat in order to fuel further gains in the national parliament.
Poland has registered at least 3,500 attempted migrant crossings from the Belorussian border since August. Earlier this month, Polish President Andrej Duda declared a state of emergency covering multiple regions that border Belarus due to the surge in Afghani refugees. The outlined measures restrict access to the border to those who are not approved by the government. The move by the Polish president followed directly after Lukashenko opened a pathway for thousands of migrants to pour into the European Union.. Both Poland and Lithuania have gone to the extent of accusing Lukashenko of weaponizing refugees and using them as a diplomatic pawn. Non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty international have voiced their concern over the emergency declaration due to the risk it imposes on asylum seekers.
Poland is not the only example where conservative right wing parties have capitalized on the refugee crisis. In 2015, the German right-wing party the Alternative for Germany centered its message on anti-immigration and anti-European Union rhetoric. They have used this message to capitalize on the influx of refugees, stoke nationalistic fears, and use this fear to push their party’s fringe politics into the mainstream. This is the type of chaos that Lukashenko is trying to reintroduce to the European Union. By opening up a pathway for migrants to make their way into the European Union, Lukashenko is attempting to recreate the 2015 migrant crisis and thrust the European Union into political chaos through a surge of right wing conservative parties.
If left unchecked, a renewed migrant crisis can allow for far-right extremists to gain a permanent foothold in the political mainstream and sway national policy for decades to come. With an increased presence of far-right conservative parties, a new age of policy would emerge that could set Europe back decades. From banning legislation that would halt the transition to clean energy from fossil fuels to the potential disintegration of the European Union, a surge in far-right conservatism would change the political landscape of Europe for years to come. With Lukashenko showing no signs of limiting the inflow of refugees, it's only a matter of time before nationalist groups start changing the political landscape of Europe forever.