What is happening on the Belarusian-Polish border concerns us all
It is December 2021. It is now exactly one year since we made our first publication in PEN/Opp’s Belarusian issue. At that time, civil disobedience could still be openly manifested, despite the escalating violence. The newly born civil society’s white-red-white symbols could be seen in the streets and suburbs; grassroot activists still arranged street manifestations and neighbourhood activities. Today this is impossible. State repression is too permeating, the violence too overwhelming, and the risks all too great.
Today, there are more than nine hundred officially recognized political prisoners in the country, while many more are being held in custody for having expressed their civil position. Almost four thousand criminal charges have been filed against protesting citizens, and forty thousand persons have gone through the ordeal of the country’s notorious detention centres and prisons. It is hard to assess how many Belarusians have left their country, but they amount to hundreds of thousands. In August, the Belarusian PEN Centre was liquidated. The independent journalists’ and writers’ unions have met the same fate, along with more than two hundred and fifty other NGO:s, ranging from human rights groups and women’s shelters to wildlife protection clubs and organizations for inclusive sports. Civil society at large is the target of the repression. Everything that relies on local engagement, spontaneous solidarity, and horizontal organization is forbidden. All independent media in the country have been shut down; those that continue to function in exile are regarded as extremists, and merely subscribing to one of these can entail imprisonment. What started as a political crisis has developed into a social and humanitarian crisis, deepened by the corona pandemic and the economic consequences of the regime’s domestic terror and its isolation from the international community.
This autumn, within the ongoing Belarusian crisis, a new humanitarian crisis has been taking place, as thousands of refugees, mainly from the Middle East, have found themselves stuck in the forests on the Belarusian-Polish border. This crisis is dealt with in this issue’s final text, written by the Polish activist Urszula Glensk. In October, the Polish government declared a state of national emergency at the border, thereby creating a three-kilometre-wide zone, closed both to humanitarian organizations and to media. The refugees are thereby being kept out of helps reach — and out of sight. Our only information about them is provided via their own mobile contacts with the rest of the world — and via whatever photage the Belarusian or the Polish governments choose to share. But we do know that these people are victims of excesses by both the Belarusian forces, under whose surveillance they have been brought to the border, and by the Polish border guards, who are forcefully keeping them away from the Polish side of the border by means of so-called ‘pushbacks’, thereby violating public international law. On the Polish side, human rights activists have tried finding ways to break both the humanitarian aid blockade and the information blockade. Glensk is one of these activists. For obvious reasons, no similar movement is possible on the Belarusian side of the border.
This crisis has once again brought Belarus onto the international political agenda: the instable dictatorship in Minsk is both an acute threat to its neighbours’ national security and a political conundrum for Europe as a whole. This is a necessary insight, albeit late in coming and as yet not acknowledged to its full extent. But no matter how welcome this new insight is, the new crisis has also created a fatal conceptual confusion: who are these refugees, where are they from, who is to blame for their predicament, and whose responsibility is it to help them? It has been hard for the European politicians to decide on a common strategy to contain the situation, and it has been equally hard for the European public debate to understand in what political context to frame it, or with what language to describe it. And at a closer look this conceptual confusion itself seems to be one of the central goals behind the manoeuvre that underlies the crisis.
To understand what is going on one needs to hold two or three thoughts in mind simultaneously. The humanitarian distress that drives the migrants to move is real. So is the distress that waits for them at the end of the road. But the fact that their sufferings are real does not make the situation at the Belarusian-Polish border any less constructed. It is the result of a special operation, planned and orchestrated by Belarusian authorities. A fact that does not, however, entail that the European authorities in general, and the Polish ones in particular, do not share a heavy responsibility for how these people are being treated in the November-cold forests at their borders.
That the crisis really is the result of a special operation by the Belarusian state, carried out at its western border, cannot be doubted. Belarusian tourist visas are being expediated en masse at consular and visa centres in various countries in the Middle East, from where flight connections to the otherwise isolated Minsk are not only still open, but suddenly operating at five to six times their usual capacity. In Minsk the refugees are directed onto busses and transported further west. The last stretch to the border they go by foot, escorted by uniformed Belarusian personnel. This operation has several purposes. The most obvious is to divert – it is a deceptive manoeuvre, aimed at distracting our attention from what is really going on.
But it does not stop there. It is no coincidence that this orchestrated crisis targets the point where the European political cohesion is at its weakest – namely the European disagreement on how to treat the right of asylum. While Europe during the past five to six years has not managed to formulate any principles for a common asylum policy, a new European political practice has been established, aimed at fortifying the Union’s outer borders – the result of tactical compromises, in which even principally asylum-liberal political parties have, albeit unwillingly, joined forces with openly xenophobic ones. The rift between these two political forces runs through every European country, but it has also created a gulf within the Union. At the present time this gulf separates a small group of authoritarian and nationalist-orientated countries in Eastern Europe from the rest of the EU, but the European political landscape is far from stable — which is also a factor in the Belarusian equation. And since Poland’s government has for several years has taken a confrontational stance against the EU, the country is now isolated, making its government even more incapable of reacting adequately to the Belarusian provocation. The violence on the Polish side should be seen in the light of this political weakness: the Polish ‘militarization’ of the crisis is one way of shifting the focus away from the field of politics to an area where it is easier to show initiative. But in a most unfortunate way this aligns well with the Lukashenka regime’s dire need to disguise its own political weakness by ‘militarizing’ its relationship to the world at large.
Also, the manoeuvre targets a spot where European opinion is vulnerable. The fact that the crisis is staged — in the word’s literal meaning — is pivotal. The very photage, depicting the crisis, is part and parcel of the operation: both the pictures of children in wet winter jackets against a background of barbed wire and border guards, and the video clips that show violent attempts to break through the barbed European fences. The manipulative intention of the latter is obvious — their aim is to trigger the ever-increasing xenophobic sentiments in Europe by affirming their atavistic notions of a ‘beleaguered’ Europe. The manipulative power of the former is more insidious, and aimed at Europe’s humanitarian self-understanding: the empathy they stir is meant to trigger Europe’s latently guilty conscience and to be a reminder that Europe itself has a blame in this suffering. The logic is simple yet ruthless: on the one hand Europe condemns Lukashenka’s regime on a moral basis, while on the other hand it betrays its own ideals in the treatment of the refugees at its border, thus causing its moral mandate to erode regarding Lukashenka as well.
Thirdly, the Belarusian democratic opinion is also a target of this operation. The aim, as ever, is to sow division. On the one side are Belarusians, who see the fate of the refugees as a continuation of the very same violence they themselves have been victims of, and who therefore express solidarity with them. On the other side there are examples of how even democratically inclined Belarusians do not regard the refugees as victims of Lukashenka’s regime, but rather as collaborators or even active helpers of the regime. Behind these opinions, beside the underlying xenophobic sentiments that exist in Belarus as in other European countries, one can often sense a built-up frustration over the world’s passivity regarding the humanitarian catastrophe in Belarus — a frustration enhanced by the feeling that the international community has completely turned away from Belarus in favour of new humanitarian catastrophes, such as, for example, the Taliban take-over of Kabul.
It is easy to despair, witnessing the escalating violence in Belarus. But it is equally easy to misunderstand it, interpreting the violence as a sign of the strength of the regime. Actually, it is the opposite. After August 2020, the regime in Minsk has lost both contact with Belarusian society and all international legitimacy, apart from in the Kremlin. The regime is weak; sheer violence is the only means still available to it.
This very violence is now affecting the refugees who are flown in and driven towards the EU borders. This very violence is also affecting the millions of Belarusians who are now practically imprisoned in their own country. It is a paradox — one of many — that the EU at present is helping to construct the barbed-wire fence surrounding the huge prison camp “Belarus” — to “protect itself.” Both the refugees and the Belarusians are being held hostage by the ever weaker, and therefore ever more unpredictable Lukashenka. One of our most important tasks at this point is to make sure that the European political system is not taken hostage as well. We must continue to call things by their correct names, give events their correct proportions, and consider them in their proper contexts. We need to do this for the sake of the Belarusians, for the sake of the refugees, and for our own sake.