Migrants in Belarus challenge Europeans to show their values

Maxim Guchek/BelTA /AP
Migrant children stand in front of a barbed wire fence and Polish service members at the Belarus-Poland border. There are signs that Belarusian forces are seeking to ease the tense standoff by directing migrants away from the border.
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One of President Joe Biden’s favorite refrains is that the defining geopolitical contest of our time is between “democracy and autocracy.”

Just such a struggle is playing out now on the Poland-Belarus border. The autocratic Belarus government knows what it is doing: encouraging thousands of Middle East migrants to cross into Poland.

Why We Wrote This

President Biden’s contest between “autocracy and democracy” is playing out on the Belarus-Poland border. But European democracies are vulnerable without a migration game plan.

But the reason this is so sensitive is that democratic Europe does not know what it is doing. The European Union has not managed to agree on a humane and efficient way of distinguishing political refugees from economic migrants. So Poland’s response, as a front-line EU member state, is simply to unroll the razor wire, send in 15,000 troops, and stop everyone from coming in.

If President Biden is right, this will not be the last time that countries such as Belarus, and its patron, Russia, seek to needle their European neighbors. That could prove a further spur for democracies to agree among themselves how to express their values when it comes to foreigners seeking refuge.

It’s been said so often by U.S. President Joe Biden that it has become almost a rhetorical refrain: that the defining geopolitical contest of our time is between “democracy and autocracy.” And that seems to be exactly the contest that is playing out this week in the heart of Europe, on the Belarusian border with Poland.

On the one hand, the Kremlin-backed dictator of Belarus is using thousands of increasingly desperate Middle East refugees and migrants as a political weapon against the European Union.

But within the EU, the crisis has raised questions about what its democratic values actually demand of governments when it comes to welcoming – or not – those seeking refuge within their borders.

Why We Wrote This

President Biden’s contest between “autocracy and democracy” is playing out on the Belarus-Poland border. But European democracies are vulnerable without a migration game plan.

The EU states are showing a united front in response to the challenge from Belarus. They are angry at the way in which its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has deliberately eased entry requirements for refugees and migrants from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and directed them westward to the border with EU member-state Poland.

His aim seems to be to pressure the Europeans into removing the sanctions they’ve imposed since he won reelection last year in what international monitors deemed a rigged vote, which was followed by a violent crackdown on ensuing street protests.

If so, that effort has failed. The EU’s foreign ministers this week announced plans for further sanctions, rebuffing what its foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, termed the “instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes.”

Still, below the surface of EU unity is a fault line: between the founding Western European members of the union and some of the newer members, such as Poland, that were once in the Soviet orbit and are now self-styled “illiberal democracies.”

While there has been unanimous agreement on the need to hold Mr. Lukashenko responsible for what’s happening, some politicians and pundits in Western Europe have criticized the Polish response: serried ranks of troops along the razor-wire border fence, with orders to keep the desperate migrants out and prevent aid workers, journalists, and other outside observers from entering the area.

And with Belarus encouraging the increasingly desperate refugees and migrants to attempt to breach the border, Polish troops have not just been holding firm. On Tuesday they responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Nikolai Petrov/BelTA/Reuters
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko chairs a meeting dedicated to the migrant crisis on the Belarus-Poland border, in Minsk, Belarus, Nov. 16, 2021.

EU leaders, however, have been reluctant to voice public criticism of the Warsaw government’s muscular reactions. And that’s because they are afraid of laying bare a question pregnant with values and policy challenges that they have been dodging for years.

That question is how, or indeed whether, a community formally committed to democracy and human rights should respond to people seeking protection in Europe from what international refugee law defines as a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or politician opinion” in their home countries. And how to distinguish them from economic migrants in search of a better life.

Six years ago, a huge influx of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, more than a million in all, tested the EU’s unity almost to the breaking point. The crisis was eased when Chancellor Angela Merkel took the political risk of admitting most of them into Germany.

But a bid to put in place a “quota system” – under which other states would help resettle the refugees – met with resistance, especially on the EU’s eastern edge.

And the EU as a whole decided to do everything it could to avert another surge, and the questions it would raise. The main plank in that policy has been the payment of billions of dollars to the autocratic leader on its southern flank, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to look after migrants and refugees in his own country, rather than let them head for Europe.

The EU’s inability to draw up a refugee policy, as well as Poland’s especially acute opposition to all Middle East immigration, has made Europe vulnerable to Mr. Lukashenko’s use of refugees as a political weapon in his standoff with the EU.

And while Russia, Mr. Lukashenko’s indispensable ally and financial backer, has insisted it’s had nothing to do with the border crisis, Moscow, too, is clearly aware of the EU’s difficulties and divisions on the issue. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, referring to the Turkey deal, this week pointedly suggested the Europeans simply pay Mr. Lukashenko and the crisis would go away.

Yet Mr. Lukashenko is not the first to use refugees as a political lever. The Turkish president himself has periodically hinted at reopening the refugee floodgates at times of tension with the EU or the United States.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin used the same tactic five years ago, allowing more than 1,000 migrants to leave Russia at the border with Finland, until Helsinki dropped some of the sanctions it had imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Nor is it likely to be the last such instance of the “democracy versus autocracy” struggle highlighted by President Biden. That could be a further spur for democracies to agree among themselves on how to express their values when it comes to foreigners seeking refuge.

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