Belarus – Poland: In the shadow of the migration crisis
Anna Maria Dyner
The year 2021 came to be one of the most difficult in the history of Belarusian-Polish relations. Political, social, and cultural contacts between the two countries virtually dwindled to purely technical communication due to the events that followed the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, the migration crisis orchestrated by Minsk, persecution of the Polish minority, and accusations of Poland of striving to pursue a revisionist policy towards Belarus.
The relationship was also negatively affected by the security situation in the region, including Russia’s policy and growing tensions around Ukraine. The Union State integration processes did not play in favor of it either. Taking into account that these factors will remain the essential variables, one should not expect them to improve any time soon.
- Growing political crisis in bilateral relations, leading to the curtailment of diplomatic contacts and important programs, including the European Poland-Ukraine-Belarus cross-border cooperation program;
- Increasing political revisionism;
- Emergence of additional factors that cause heightened tensions in the region (the migration crisis, persecution of the Polish minority in Belarus, forced landing of the Ryanair plane, etc.);
- Increasing divergence in the perception of regional security challenges and threats;
- Situational improvement in trade relations.
The year 2021 was one of the worst in the 30-year history of the Belarusian-Polish relationship, even worse than the period of 2011-2015, which was previously considered the most difficult. The crisis was caused by actions of the Belarusian authorities after the presidential election of 2020, i.e. escalating repressions, which hit almost all public organizations, including those of the Polish minority, obstruction to Polish diplomatic and consular services, the incident with the Ryanair plane, accusations of the hostile policy against Belarus addressed to the Polish government, etc. The sanctions imposed by the European Union added oil to the fire, and so did the migration crisis at the western border of Belarus.
As a result, all political contacts, except for sporadic technical ones at the regional level, were terminated. Cross-border cooperation, both bilateral and under the European Union’s Poland-Ukraine-Belarus program, was suspended. Only two meetings of Belarusian and Polish delegations on the cross-border migration crisis took place during the entire year: the meeting of the Belarusian-Polish intergovernmental ad hoc group on August 16, and the meeting of the delegations of the Supreme Chamber of Control of Poland and the State Control Committee of Belarus on December 16 in Belovezhskaya Pushcha (Bialowieza Forest).
On February 28, the Polish School in Brest hosted the commemoration event “Cursed Soldiers” attended by the Polish consul, which triggered the persecution of the Polish minority and caused yet another diplomatic crisis. The Brest Regional Economic Court ruled in April to liquidate the Polish school.
Earlier, on March 9, Belarus decided to expel the Polish consul general from Brest. In response, Poland declared a Belarusian embassy officer in Warsaw persona non grata. Minsk, in turn, ordered the Polish consul out of Grodno. On March 12, Poland expelled two Belarusian consuls from Warsaw and Bialystok.
Andżelika Borys, President of the Union of Poles in Belarus, was arrested on March 23 for organizing the traditional Kaziuki fair in the Polish consulate in Grodno, and charged with “rehabilitation of Nazism and incitement of national hatred”. Journalist Andrzej Poczobut was arrested on the same charge on March 25. Both activists are looking at up to 12 years in prison. Union activists Marina Tishkovskaya, Irena Bernatskaya and Anna Panisheva were also arrested and released on May 25. Intense Belarusian-Polish negotiations on the release of Borys and Poczobut continued until late 2021, but no agreement was reached.
The forced landing of the Ryanair plane at the Minsk airport on May 23 and the high-profile arrest of Sofia Sapega and Roman Protasevich, who were on board, severely aggravated the situation. Back in February, the Investigative Committee of Belarus requested the extradition of Stepan Putilo and Roman Protasevich, the co-founders of the NEXTA independent news channel, from Poland. After the incident with the Ryanair plane, Poland and then the Baltic States and the European Union closed their airspace to Belarusian planes.
The Belarusian government added September 17 to the calendar of public holidays as the National Unity Day, which was one of the indicators of the bad neighborhood relations. For the first time, the period of 1920–1939 was called the time of the Polish occupation of Western Belarus, time of terror, repressions and denationalization of Belarusians by the Polish authorities. Warsaw interpreted this as an unfriendly gesture, because this date is associated with the Soviet attack on the Second Polish Republic, and is largely equivalent to September 1, the day of the Nazi invasion and the beginning of World War II. Before that, historical memory had not been a matter of serious political disagreements between Minsk and Warsaw.
In 2021, Poland became one of the Western countries most involved in resolving the political crisis in Belarus, among other things, through the imposition of more sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, both personal and economic. At the same time, together with the countries of the Visegrad Group, Poland initiated the European Union’s Economic Assistance Plan for a Democratic Belarus.1 The package of EUR 3 billion is designed for economic reforms, investments in infrastructure and institutional changes in the case of a democratic transition of Belarus. The program aims at generating additional growth potential, through which new jobs will be created. The investment package is backstopped by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank with grant support from the Neighborhood Investment Platform, which Belarus does not currently have access to.
Border crisis and security threats
Since the second half of 2020, Minsk has been accusing Poland and the Baltic States of waging a hybrid war against Belarus, and preparing a revolution in the country. For the Lukashenko regime this was one of the pretexts for greater military integration with Russia. At the same time, as the tension around Ukraine was growing, and Russia massed its troops near Ukraine’s borders in the spring and autumn of 2021, NATO continued thinking about the further force buildup on its eastern flank. In late 2021, Russia presented NATO and the U.S. with demands, the fulfillment of which would de facto mean a contravention of the NATO functioning principles and security policy of the U.S. and its allies.
The most acute of the bilateral disputes was the migration crisis provoked by the Belarusian authorities at the western border of Belarus, which can be divided into two phases. During the first phase, the migrants were brought to the borders of Lithuania and Latvia, and, during the second one, to the border shared with Poland. The conflict began in mid-May, when the Lithuanian Border Guard Service began reporting increasing attempts to cross the border illegally from the Belarusian side. Hostile actions took place in early August at the border with Poland. Over time, they took the form of a full-scale hybrid attack. Pursuant to the Border Guard Act, Poland engaged its army and police to support the border guards. Also, Poland decided to build a 180 km long and 5.5 meters high fence on the border with Belarus.
Polish Defense Attaché Colonel Jaroslaw Kembrowski was summoned to the Ministry of Defense of Belarus on November 9. Pointing at the concentration of Polish troops at the border with Belarus, the ministry reminded that, according to the bilateral supplementary agreement to the Vienna Document of the Negotiations on Confidence and Security-Building Measures, the opposing side must be notified of all exercises involving more than 6,000 soldiers. The Defense Ministry of Belarus also stated its disagreement with Poland’s belief that Belarusian secret services and the army were behind the border crisis.
In the context of this crisis, Belarusian diplomacy also took a number of actions aimed at discrediting the neighboring countries in international organizations, including the UN and the OSCE, presenting Poland and Lithuania as countries unwilling to accept refugees and migrants. At the September 27 session of the UN General Assembly, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei accused Poland and the Baltic States of murdering the migrants, who were trying to enter these countries from Belarus, and transporting their bodies to the Belarusian territory.
The conflict was actively used by Russia to upset the Belarusian-Polish relationship. Moscow not only seconded Belarus’ accusations at international venues, but also demanded an investigation into the alleged murders of migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border. To justify these accusations, Minsk mainly used the testimony of Polish army soldier Emil Czeczko, who defected to Belarus at the height of the migration crisis, and, according to the Belarusian authorities, applied for asylum in December 2021.2 Russia used the conflict as an opportunity to test the political unity of NATO and the EU.
The border crisis had a pronounced military aspect. Its second phase began a month before the active phase of the West 2021 joint strategic exercise based on a scenario of military actions of Belarus and Russia against the western neighboring countries. The exercise clearly demonstrated that Belarus and Russia were preparing for military action against NATO in the East.
A while after the end of the exercise, on November 11, Lukashenko asked Russia for support in guarding the border with the NATO members. Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said on November 16 that the Belarusian army was ready to respond to the challenges arising at the western border, and emphasized that the actions taken by the Polish army to guard the border were inadequate to the scale of the threat.
The border crisis and its aggravation in the Polish direction in November can also be interpreted as a test of the Polish border guards’ capabilities when it comes to interaction between the army and other defense and security agencies. The sustained tension at the border aimed at putting pressure on the eastern NATO members, which had to increase the spending on border protection and extend the state of emergency.
The different perception of security issues in the region and the identified threats was an important element of the disagreement between Minsk and Warsaw. Poland was increasingly concerned about rapidly developing Belarus-Russia military integration, especially after it was reported in October that the Union State of Belarus and Russia would soon adopt a new military doctrine, which would highlight threats ostensibly posed by NATO as the most important ones.
Minsk’s statements about the possible deployment of the Iskander missile systems and S-400 air defense systems at the western border of Belarus, and the country’s readiness to host Russian nuclear weapons in case of the placement of American nuclear weapons in Poland (which is highly unlikely) are also worth noting.
Minsk perceived the possible reinforcement of the NATO troops in the eastern regions as a threat, in particular, the purchase of modern weapons by Poland, including the F-35 fighters, Patriot missile defense systems and HIMARS multiple rocket launchers. Belarus’ warnings, including those voiced right after the presidential election in August 2020, were not something new, but, in 2021, they became more frequent and harsher, as Russia showed interest in that.
Economic and social relations
In contrast to the political crisis situation, Belarusian-Polish trade developed quite intensively in 2021. The mutual trade turnover amounted to over USD 3.775 billion (USD 2.489 billion in 2020). Belarus’ exports to Poland totaled USD 1.687 billion; imports – USD 2.088 billion.3 Poland still had a surplus in trade with Belarus.
From time to time, the countries imposed trade restrictions related to both phytosanitary issues (mutual restrictions on the import of poultry, pork, etc.), and the EU sanctions against Belarus.
As before, trade was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying restrictions. This mainly concerned the passenger traffic, which was also attributed to the border crisis that had been ongoing since August, and, in November, seriously complicated the functioning of the Kuźnica Białostocka – Bruzgi border crossing point.
In 2021, the Belarusian-Polish border was crossed 2.18 million times (a 28% decrease from the previous year). Polish border guards apprehended 2,877 citizens of third countries, who crossed the border illegally (up 1,070% against 2020), and only 152 of them were Belarusian citizens.4
During the year, 2,134 citizens of Belarus applied for international protection in Poland; 1,150 Belarusians fulfilled the conditions for international protection (this includes the data of the Polish Office for Foreigners on the previous years, mostly 2020).5
Although it was very difficult for Poland to execute projects in Belarus due to the pandemic, worsened political relations, and the migration crisis, it allocated PLN 169.63 million, which were spent, among other things, on scholarships and educational activities.
As previously noted, Warsaw refused to cooperate with Belarus under the Poland-Ukraine-Belarus program (2021–2027), and only partnered with Ukraine. This is one of the most interesting programs to support cross-border cooperation, thanks to which, dozens of projects, from the improvement of border infrastructure to the popularization of common history and cultural heritage, have been implemented.
The situation inside Belarus (human rights violations, persecution of the Polish minority, etc.), the COVID-19 pandemic, the border crisis and security threats in the region had a negative impact on the Belarusian-Polish relationship. The year 2021 was a period of deepening divergences in the perception of the most important threats and the lack of political will for any kind of cooperation, even technical or local.
Although the deteriorating political climate between the two countries did not lead to a noticeable decline in trade, it strongly affected all social and cultural contacts. Due to the policies of the European Union or Russia, which are unlikely to undergo significant changes in the coming years, any improvement of the Belarusian-Polish relationship is highly unlikely, so, at best, it will remain purely technical.
Bilateral trade is likely to deteriorate because of the European sanctions. Aggravated security issues will further increase mutual distrust. Only significant political changes in Belarus may alter the situation.