It’s not a tempest in a teapot; it’s smaller than that. A few thousand Arabs and Kurds, mostly young men but including women and children, are trapped between Poland, which will not let them in, and Belarusian border guards and militia who will not let them back into Belarus. But the language is getting menacing.
Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator who has ruled Belarus for the past quarter-century, is leading the rhetorical parade. There were massive non-violent protests in Belarus last year after he rigged yet another election, and although they were crushed with mass arrests and beatings he is now in a state of perpetual anxiety.
It makes him hyperactive. Last May he forced down a civilian airliner on its way from Greece to Lithuania in order to arrest a young opposition leader who had fled abroad for safety. That was tantamount to hijacking, and the European Union responded by imposing sanctions on Lukashenko and a number of his henchmen.
Even more angry and fearful, he then concocted a bizarre scheme in August to put pressure on the EU by luring would-be migrants in the Middle East to come to Belarus and try their luck from there. Travel agents in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, all countries full of desperate people, were told they could issue free visas to anybody who wanted to come.
None of those prospective migrants actually wanted to live in Belarus, of course, but the word was spread that it was easy to cross the border from there into Poland, which is an EU member. None of the migrants wanted to live in Poland either, but from there, the story was, it would be easy to get to Germany or the United Kingdom. Belarus would even help them to cross.
The visas weren’t really free; the middlemen in Iraq, Syria and Yemen charged $3,000-$4,000 per person for a visa and a flight to Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Most of the would-be migrants were met at the airport by Belarusian police or militia who drove them straight to the border and pointed them west.
As Lukashenko doubtless foresaw, the Poles overreacted. Poland’s current populist government makes its living by promising to defend the homeland from hordes of imaginary migrants who dream of living in Szczecin and ravishing Polish maidens, so finding some real Arabs and Kurds on the border was a political godsend.
The actual number of migrants trapped between the Polish border fence and the Belarusian forces who won’t let them go back to Minsk is modest: somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000. But there are now 17,000 Polish border guards facing them in a no-go militarised zone that even the Polish media are excluded from.
So there the poor deluded migrants sit, freezing and half-starved, while both governments profit politically from their misery. And when the EU announced last month that it is imposing a further round of sanctions on the Lukashenko regime for the migrant caper, he spun out even further.
“We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us,” Lukashenko raged (referring to a Russian gas pipeline that crosses Belarus and supplies Poland and Germany). “What if we halt natural gas supplies? Therefore, I would recommend the leadership of Poland, Lithuania and other empty-headed people to think before speaking.”
But it’s not Belarus’s gas, and at this point Russia’s President Vladimir Putin finally spoke up on the issue. Belarus is one of Russia’s few allies and Putin usually puts up with Lukachenko’s antics, but now he was threatening Moscow’s business interests.
“Of course, in theory, Lukashenko as president of a transit country could order our supplies to be cut to Europe. But this would mean a breach of our gas transit contract and I hope this will not happen,” Putin said. “There’s nothing good in this, and I will, of course, talk to him about this subject. Perhaps he said that in a fit of temper.”
And that was that. Putin is waiting for Germany’s energy regulator to approve the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic, currently suspended, which would double Russia’s gas sales to Europe. A military crisis in Eastern Europe would definitely queer that deal, so Lukashenko will have to climb down and shut up.
Putin won’t abandon Lukashenko utterly, because he’s terrified that a successful non-violent democratic revolution in a neighbouring country might infect Russia too, but he has yanked on the Belarusian strongman’s chain very hard. The crisis is effectively over, although Lukashenko may be allowed a face-saving ‘decent interval’ before he calls it off.
Not so much a tempest in a teapot, then. More like a very small storm in a samovar.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent
journalist based in London