Belarus blame game: What the key players are saying on border crisis

Public relations battle over fate of migrants trapped at EU's eastern border

Migrants set up a camp at the Bruzgi border post on the Belarusian-Polish border. As winter sets in, their plight looks set to worsen. AFP
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The stand-off at Poland’s border with Belarus has developed into a public relations battle, as the countries blame each other for the plight of migrants trapped in the middle.

Poland suspects Belarus of using text messages to shepherd migrants towards the EU's eastern border and coach them to look forlorn and miserable.

Warsaw has used a prolific Twitter presence to share footage from the border and seek to counter what it sees as a propaganda campaign coming from President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk.

The crisis has drawn in larger geopolitical players, including the EU and Russia. As it drags on into winter, the migrants – many of them Iraqi – face an uncertain future.

The National looks at what the key players have said and what they mean.

Poland: EU is under attack

What they said:

“We Poles are determined to defend our border by all means – which is the eastern border of Europe and Nato.”

Mateusz Morawiecki, Prime Minister of Poland

What it means:

Poland’s depiction of the crisis as a common EU challenge comes amid otherwise fractious relations with Brussels, which is at odds with Warsaw over alleged violations of the rule of law.

On the migrant crisis, Poland has sought to rally support from the EU by persuading Brussels that that the security of the whole bloc is at stake amid a “hybrid attack” by Belarus.

It also wants to set an example of tough border security which it has long believed the rest of Europe should follow. Mr Morawiecki said: “We must do everything to protect our borders from immigration at the Mediterranean and in the east.”

Belarus: It is not our fault

What they said:

“If you want to remove the barbed wire, we do not mind. Remove it and come right up to the refugees.”

Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus

What it means:

Belarus denies orchestrating the crisis, and has sought to shift the blame by suggesting the migrants would be fine if only the EU would let them in.

State media has been awash with pictures of long-suffering migrants and reports of them being mistreated by Poland. This has served to deflect criticism from a regime under sanctions for alleged human rights violations.

“The Lukashenko regime and its propaganda is seeking to portray this crisis as the result of the EU’s refusal to abide by international law,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Centre for a New American Security think tank, in a briefing to US legislators.

Mr Lukashenko has proposed that the EU should take in 2,000 migrants while Belarus seeks to persuade another 5,000 to return home “to the extent possible and provided refugees agree to it”. Germany has said such a deal was not on the table.

Poland: Do not believe Belarus’s propaganda

What they said:

“Belarusians conduct disinformation activities, use emotional blackmail, exposing the participation of children and women in migrant groups, although they are a minority … Belarus hopes that public opinion in Poland and the West will put additional pressure on the Polish government.”

Stanislaw Zaryn, Polish security services spokesman

What it means:

Polish officials, well aware of Belarus’s attempts to shape the narrative, have heavily used Twitter to tell their own side of the story.

By accusing Belarus of exaggerating the misery faced by migrants, Poland sought to downplay the humanitarian crisis and thereby divert criticism from Polish guards.

Mr Zaryn quoted from text messages purportedly circulating among migrants encouraging them to approach foreign journalists, use articulate children as spokespeople and give them banners to wave.

Aid workers have accused Poland of illegally pushing people back into Belarus and failing to provide adequate food or shelter.

Belarus: Russia is in our corner

What they said:

“We’ve staged, stage and will stage such operations to protect our security that neither the West nor the European Union can even imagine. And Russians have finally understood that Belarus’s KGB may be considerably smaller but it is a powerful fist.”

Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus

What it means:

Belarus is under pressure from the EU, US and organisations, such as the G7 and Nato, but has one key ally in its corner: Russia.

The West has been shown this more assertively in recent weeks, with two Russian bombers flying over Belarusian territory in a show of force. But Mr Lukashenko’s message was also aimed at the Kremlin, which has publicly tried to stay out of the dispute.

“We don’t have any proof that Russia is participating or orchestrating, but for sure Russia is backing Lukashenko here,” said Pavel Slunkin, a Belarus expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

“And I’m sure that Lukashenko [wouldn’t] be ready to start the attack against the EU without permission from Moscow.”

Germany: Our door is not open

What they said:

“Rumours that Germany is planning to send buses to pick people up from Belarus through Poland to Germany are false. Whoever spreads these lies puts people in great danger.”

German Foreign Office

What it means:

Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are the gateways to the EU from Belarus, but it is no secret that some migrants dream of continuing to wealthy Germany.

Warsaw and Berlin have sought to communicate directly with the migrants to persuade them that this is not an option. Germany’s message was posted on social media in Kurdish, Arabic and English.

Poland, which said the rumour had circulated among migrants at the border, sent a message in English, Polish, German, French and Arabic telling them that the story was “a total lie and nonsense”. It has separately warned migrants that they could be poisoned by Belarus.

It was not clear who started the buses rumour, but Polish official Stanislaw Zaryn said whoever was behind it “hoped to push migrants into storming the Polish border”.

EU: We are not backing down

What they said:

“The Belarusian authorities must understand that pressuring the European Union in this way through a cynical instrumentalisation of migrants will not help them succeed in their purposes.”

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission

What it means:

The EU is in no doubt that the crisis is being orchestrated by Minsk to retaliate against sanctions and punish EU countries who support the Belarusian opposition.

Rather than submitting to the pressure, the EU has responded by tightening sanctions on Mr Lukashenko’s regime.

But Poland felt the EU’s united position was undermined when German Chancellor Angela Merkel held one-to-one talks with Mr Lukashenko.

Mr Slunkin said the calls had helped Mr Lukashenko achieve one of his aims by forcing European leaders to talk to him. “He’s in a much more comfortable position when he’s not discussing his absolute power and his control over Belarus,” he said.

Russia: Talk to Belarus

What they said:

“Of course, talks between Lukashenko and Putin are not enough to find solutions to this crisis. It’s crucial to continue direct contacts between Lukashenko and EU representatives.”

Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman

What it means:

Russia, like Belarus, denies being behind the migrant crisis and has sought to shift blame on to the West. Separately, it has alarmed Nato with a troop build-up near Ukraine.

The two presidents, Mr Lukashenko and Russia's Vladimir Putin, spoke on Friday to condemn what they called the “unacceptable brutal actions” of Polish guards.

But Moscow has repeatedly told the EU to deal with Belarus directly. Mrs Merkel initially spoke to Mr Putin, who invited her to approach Mr Lukashenko.

Ms Kendall-Taylor believes the Kremlin sensed an opportunity to test the West’s resolve, at a time when Germany is between governments, France has an election coming up and the US is more focused on China.

“The events in Belarus need to be understood as part of a broader, multifaceted pressure campaign by the Kremlin on Europe,” she said.

G7: Belarusian repression to blame

What they said:

“The actions of the Belarusian regime are an attempt to deflect attention from its ongoing disregard for international law, fundamental freedoms and human rights, including those of its own people.”

G7 foreign ministers’ statement

What it means:

Ministers from G7 countries – a club that included Russia until its annexation of Crimea in 2014 – came to Poland's defence against what they said were Belarus’s breaches of international law.

Their promise to support “civil society and human rights in Belarus” addressed what the US described as the root cause of the problem – the repression in Belarus that prompted sanctions on Minsk in the first place.

Washington has indicated that further sanctions could be imposed if Mr Lukashenko does not reverse course.

Having quit the EU, the UK is not involved in the EU’s rule of law disputes in Poland. On Friday, Britain sought to deepen ties with Warsaw by announcing a partnership in the missile sector.

Updated: November 19, 2021, 3:09 PM