The threat from Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko to disrupt the flow of Russian gas into Europe is the clearest sign yet that he has no intention of backing down from the rapidly escalating confrontation between Belarus and the European Union over the presence of a growing number of asylum seekers. There is no plan. Seeker on the border with Poland.
Global energy prices are at record highs and are expected to remain there. So Lukashenko’s threat to cut gas supplies to Europe is a threat that EU leaders cannot ignore.
The humanitarian crisis on the eastern borders of the European Union is actually the latest and potentially the most dangerous phase in Lukashenko’s ongoing struggle to retain power in Belarus, which undermines the legitimacy of his regime in the face of mass protests. Is. elections in august 2020
Earlier this year, Lukashenko threatened to “flood Europe with drugs and migrants”, reacting to the ban by the European Union. And, in recent months, thousands of people have traveled from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia to Belarus in search of a better and safer life in Europe. Those who spoke to reporters reported that every step of his visit was organized by the Belarusian regime. Tour companies with state links sold them flights to Minsk and provided ground transportation to the border. Once there, he said, members of the Belarus security services show them where to cross, and then actively prevent them from returning to Belarus if they are caught by patrols on the other side.
The lucky ones manage to escape the border guards and enlist the help of local activists. But many remain stranded in the open without food, adequate shelter or warm clothing. At least eight people have died so far.
While the links may not be immediately clear, Belarus’ engineering of the crisis stems directly from the protests that have gripped the country for more than a year.
Read more: Belarus: Opposition pressure continues inside and outside the country – will it work?
The controversial presidential election of August 2020 marked the beginning of the gravest threat to Lukashenko’s position since he first became president in 1994. Despite the brutal retribution by the security forces, the common people took to the streets in support. Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whom many consider to be the real winner of the election. Real political change seemed possible in Belarus.
Lukashenko’s reaction was first to remove prominent opposition figures from the political arena. Tikhanovskaya left Belarus shortly after the election, citing threats against her children and seeking asylum in Lithuania. Others also went into exile or were imprisoned, like Maria Kolesnikova – another prominent critic of Lukashenko.
Journalists and civil society organizations were targeted for removing remaining sources of support for the opposition and starving Belarusian society of independent sources of news. By the summer of 2021, Lukashenko’s strategy to divide the opposition by keeping key interest groups – especially the security services – on his side was paying off and he could turn his attention to critics in the West.
The ban cuts, Lukashenko backs down
Since August 2020, Western countries have taken a series of measures against Lukashenko’s regime, targeting major Belarusian exports as well as individuals and businesses with close ties to the president. While some critics argue that the sanctions do not go far enough, it is clear that Lukashenko also finds the fact of Western condemnation offensive, not to mention its detrimental effect on the Belarusian economy.
In July, Lukashenko threatened to allow large numbers of migrants into the EU from Belarus, making it clear that it was a retaliation for EU economic sanctions against Belarus. The decision to use asylum seekers as a political weapon is drastic, but has so far proved highly effective in provoking a backlash that paints EU member states in a negative light. Poland, in particular, has declared a state of emergency and passed legislation authorizing funds to build a wall along the border with Belarus. Meanwhile, its security forces have been criticized for heavy-handed tactics against refugees.
The recent suggestion by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, that the EU may pay Belarus to keep refugees away from Europe, may indicate that Lukashenko aims to punish not only the EU, but also the crisis. Expect to get some material gains. If so, he is likely to be disappointed. Far from giving concessions to Belarus, the EU is looking for ways to impose more sanctions. And if Lukashenko goes ahead with his threat to block gas pipelines crossing Belarusian territory, his country’s economy will be further hit by a reduction in transit revenue.
The current crisis is almost certain to intensify protests between the Belarusian regime and the West, especially the European Union, and strengthen its ties with Moscow. Although Lukashenko has a track record of blowing hot and cold in his relationship with Russia, his response to the threat posed by Tikhanovskaya and the opposition movement has left him with little choice of allies.
The big question is whether the mastermind behind Lukashenko’s migrant gambling is actually Vladimir Putin. There is no convincing evidence that Russia is the puppet-master, although the strategy certainly has many of Putin’s traits: unorthodox and often indirect but well-targeted measures that are effective in provoking an exaggerated response.
Read more: Belarus: Whether or not Putin is behind the border crisis plays in the hands of the Kremlin
So far, Putin has shown no sign of intervening to control Lukashenko and end the current crisis. The disruption and confusion at Europe’s borders, as well as ethical and legal questions about the EU’s response to the humanitarian crisis at its doorstep, all help advance Putin’s broader agenda: To take advantage of opportunities to divide, discourage and distract opponents.