Why Belarus is using migrants as a political weapon

“Belarus has sent thousands of desperate migrants to its border with Poland in a bid to antagonize the European Union over sanctions imposed last year, in the wake of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on political opponents and protesters.
The influx of migrants, which EU officials say Lukashenko has deliberately provoked as a “hybrid attack” on the EU, comes at a difficult moment for the EU as the bloc struggles with internal tensions of its own, but has so far resulted in an increasingly unified EU response.”

“People trying to leave places like Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, have received Belarusian visas, bought a ticket on one of the many flights run by the state-operated airline, and headed to Minsk, Belarus’s capital, where some have been housed in government-run hotels, according to the New York Times.

But far from providing humanitarian aid and a safe haven for migrants, the Lukashenko regime is pushing them toward the borders of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania in an attempt to put pressure on the EU to lift sanctions on the nation.

Belarus has also taken direct action to make things harder for its EU neighbors: The New York Times reports that Belarusian security forces have provided migrants with instructions on crossing the borders and tools like wire cutters and axes to break down border fences.

On Saturday, Belarusian journalist Tadeusz Giczan tweeted that Belarusian forces were attempting to destroy fencing at the Polish border and using lasers and flashing lights to temporarily blind and confuse Polish soldiers stationed there in an attempt to help migrants get across the border.

Despite Belarusian efforts to force migrants into neighboring EU countries, however, the vast majority of those currently at the border are stuck there, with little protection from the elements. As winter sets in, migrants are sleeping in tents, often with inadequate clothing and supplies, and EU countries are thus far refusing them entry. Already, at least nine people have died; some estimates are even higher, and conditions could still worsen as winter sets in.”

“Despite the severity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding at Belarus’s borders, Lukashenko’s aims appear to be primarily political. The strongman president desperately wants to bring the EU to the negotiating table over sanctions imposed after he was fraudulently reelected last year and force the bloc to again recognize him as the country’s legitimate leader.”

A Soviet-Style Strongman Still Rules Belarus

“Democratic governance, freedom, and flourishing in Belarus have long been hampered by Alexander Lukashenko, a demagogue and dictator who took power in 1994. In the country’s first and only open election, Lukashenko—who ran on an anti-corruption platform—was elected president. But once in office, he proved reluctant to let go of power or tolerate dissent.
“Openly nostalgic for Soviet times,” as the Associated Press put it in 1996, Lukashenko was dismissive of the country’s parliament, hostile to constitutional limits, and enthusiastic about state control of information. From the beginning, he was warm to Russia, signing a friendship treaty in 1995 that included concessions such as allowing Russian troops to be stationed in Belarus. He continues to encourage the people to speak Russian, not Belarusian.

By 1996, Lukashenko was proposing constitutional amendments to extend his term in office and expand his power. Parliament would not approve a referendum on it, instead proposing impeachment. “I will not give up the reins of power,” Lukashenko vowed in response. And he hasn’t.

Lukashenko has held on to his position by quashing opposition, suppressing nonstate media, interfering with elections, and otherwise denying civil liberties and political freedom to Belarusians.”

The long reach of Belarus’s repression

“The most egregious case happened in May, when Belarusian fighter jets diverted a Ryanair plane that was flying over Belarus en route to Lithuania from Greece and forced it to land in Minsk. Officials claimed (with laughably flimsy evidence) they had received a credible bomb threat against the plane. It was merely a pretext to arrest a prominent Belarusian opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend, who were aboard the flight (along with 170 other passengers).”

Belarus opposition confident of change despite year of ‘hell’ unleashed by Lukashenko

“A year after his tainted electoral victory, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko continues to use violence and intimidation against his opponents at home and abroad to cling to power.

But the opposition isn’t giving up hope that he can be pushed out.”

“Lukashenko is showing no sign of loosening his grip.

All prominent opposition leaders have either been arrested or forced out of the country. Protesters have faced mass arrests. The regime is now rooting out the few remaining independent media operations and NGOs — including education institutions, human rights advocates and the local unit of the PEN-center headed by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Aleksievich, who lives in exile in Germany.”

Belarusian opposition leader refuses to be thrown out of the country

“Kolesnikova was snatched from the streets of Minsk on Monday. She is a member of the opposition Coordination Council, set up to arrange a peaceful transfer of power after the August 9 presidential election. Lukashenko claims to have won 80 percent of the vote, but his rival Svetlana Tihkhanovskaya says she was the real winner.

Lukashenko has denounced the council as an illegal body and the authorities are arresting and deporting its members.”

Belarus’s historic anti-government protests, in photos

“Tens of thousands of protesters demanding a new election gathered in Minsk, Belarus, and other cities around the country on Sunday in what some observers say may be the largest protests in the history of the former Soviet republic.

The demonstrations came a week after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — Europe’s longest-serving leader — plainly rigged national elections to remain in power. They also marked the eighth day of protests across the country against those results, a striking burst of energy against a repressive government that has resulted in thousands of Belarusians being detained and at least two deaths.”

“Lukashenko intervened aggressively in the elections: He detained journalists and two of the top three opposition leaders running against him; he prohibited the third one from running altogether.

Lukashenko’s authoritarian handling of the election while the nation also faced serious economic and public health crises seems to have backfired, helping to ignite the protests.

Part of the dissident energy also seemed to be fueled by the meteoric rise of a 37-year-old stay-at-home-mom-turned-opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who stepped into the race after her husband, a popular blogger, was arrested two days after he announced his candidacy for president. Tikhanovskaya has been forced to flee the country out of safety concerns, but protests have continued to gather momentum across the nation.”