ALEXANDER LUKACHENKO, master tactician? The President of Belarus brought thousands of migrants from the Middle East to EUon the eve of winter, challenging the bloc to abandon its humanitarian instincts before the eyes of the world. Lukashenko appears to have intended to rekindle the internal division and political upheaval that followed the influx of migrants to Europe in 2015. Rather, he forged a consensus in favor of swift punishment of his regime.
The scenes that have taken place on the Polish-Belarusian border since November 8 were his concoction. Belarusian travel agents in Iraq are offering flights, a visa and the false promise of an easy path to a new life in Europe in exchange for thousands of dollars. Arrivals in Minsk are transported through the woods to a place on the border where, far from quickly crossing Poland and embarking on the supposed opportunity to move into the Schengen free-travel zone, migrants find themselves stuck between the EUand Belarusian men armed with rifles, unable to move forward or backward. As The Economist went to press on 11 November, some 2,000 were trapped near the current main point of concern, the Kuznica crossing (see map). There have been a number of attempts to cross the border there. An estimated 20,000 migrants are believed to be elsewhere in Belarus, with more continuing to fly through Istanbul and other Middle Eastern cities on Belavia, the Belarusian airline.
Lukashenko’s foreign policy has increasingly resembled that of a mob boss since his election robbery last year. He sent henchmen after dissidents who fled abroad. He is angry with the countries that harbor them, mainly Poland and Lithuania, and with all the EU for the sanctions he imposed on his regime. The ambition of these sanctions has been reduced thanks to lobbying from the industries concerned, from Austrian banks to Lithuanian railways. Today, the political will to dissuade Mr. Lukashenko has hardened. The EU hints at new sanctions, including against Belavia, possibly as early as next week. The hitherto hesitant Irish government, whose companies lease planes from the airline, has made a commitment.
This does not mean that it will be easy to remove migrants from the route to Belarus. The EU wants to install officials at airports in the Middle East to entice Iraqi passengers to ask awkward questions before they board. But this will take time. Angela Merkel, the outgoing German Chancellor, has called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to dissuade Lukashenko from his plot. His chances of success seem slim.
Poland sees deterrence as the best way to stem the influx and is therefore determined not to admit any of the migrants who gather at its gates. His populist government has rejected offers of aid from Frontex, the EUthe border agency. A camp has sprung up on the Belarusian side, and a long battle of wills is likely. Meanwhile, migrants are in danger. A freezing winter is approaching. And Mr Lukashenko is ready to make people suffer if the television images cause problems in Europe. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Caught at the wire”