Another major scandal is growing in the relations between Belarus and Lithuania, the cause of which was the migration crisis on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border.
The Lithuanian Border Guard Service records a significant increase in the flow of illegal migrants coming from Belarus. The Lithuanian authorities blame the leadership of the Republic of Belarus for what is happening and consider the influx of migrants to be President Lukashenko’s revenge on Lithuania for calling for sanctions against Minsk.
During the five months of this year, 387 people illegally crossed the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. Most of them are citizens of Iraq, there are also visitors from Syria, Tajikistan, and Russia. This is almost five times more than in the whole of 2020 when 81 foreigners were detained illegally crossing the Lithuanian-Belarusian border (in 2019 – 46, in 2018 – 104).
In absolute numbers, these values do not seem large, but the general trend cannot but alarm the Lithuanian authorities.
Moreover, even this relatively small number of illegal immigrants can create serious problems for Lithuania.
The first bell has already rung — on June 23, Iraqi migrants staged a real riot at the Registration Center for Foreigners in the town of Pabrad, which borders Belarus, so that Lithuanian border guards were forced to use tear gas and give warning shots with rubber bullets.
How do explain what is happening?
According to the Lithuanian side, the leadership of Belarus has established a transit channel for illegal immigrants, controlled by the law enforcement agencies of the republic.
In particular, the Lithuanians saw a correlation between flights from Baghdad and Istanbul to Minsk (four flights a week) and an increase in the number of illegal crossings of the Lithuanian-Belarusian border. The Belarusian side, of course, denies everything and accuses Lithuania of unwillingness to cooperate on the protection of the joint border.
Could Belarus organize the transit of illegal immigrants?
Belarus has been repeatedly accused of patronizing various illegal smuggling schemes. Moreover, the claims were made both from the West and from the East.
Thus, Russia was very displeased with the re-export of sanctioned products from the EU, which entered the Russian Federation according to Belarusian accompanying documents. The Belarusian side of the prosecution usually denied or indicated that the main initiators of the smuggling schemes were Russian entrepreneurs. In general, the story of the smuggling of European-sanctioned products through Belarus has made a significant contribution to the deterioration of Belarusian-Russian relations.
Similarly, the smuggling of Belarusian cigarettes caused great displeasure in the EU, and several large shipments of contraband products have been detected in recent months.
However, there were no complaints about the traffic of illegal migrants to Belarus. Moreover, the official Minsk tried to maintain the highest possible reputation in this area and positioned itself almost as a “shield” on the way of illegal immigrants to Europe.
Belarus and the EU developed quite intensive cooperation in the field of countering illegal migration, and Brussels allocated funds for the equipment of points for the detention of illegal immigrants on the territory of Belarus.
Minsk has always sought to use its status as a ”barrier“ to illegal immigrants as a trump card in relations with the EU.
However, today these relations are undermined, and it is very important for the Belarusian side to demonstrate its importance to Brussels and persuade it to a “constructive” (that is, beneficial to the Belarusian leadership) dialogue.
There are precedents of “migration blackmail” in world politics. Turkey is actively resorting to such a practice in its relations with the EU, which is the main transit route for illegal immigrants from the Middle East and actually collects a kind of tribute from the EU for keeping refugees on its territory. However, when relations with the EU or Greece worsen, Turkey “opens the floodgates”, forcing its opponents to make concessions and compromises.
Of course, the Belarusian traffic of illegal immigrants is not in any comparison with the Turkish one and looks like a mosquito bite for the EU. So if we assume that Belarus really deliberately “opened the floodgates”, we should admit that this is a very weak argument, which is unlikely to be able to somehow fundamentally influence European policy in a favorable way for Minsk.
In general, the instruments of Belarus’ influence on the EU are extremely limited.
If official Minsk has quite serious trumps in the bargaining with Moscow in the form of its strategic geopolitical position of Belarus for the Russian Federation, then there are no such trumps in relations with the EU.
Perhaps the only thing that Belarus can seriously threaten Europe with is its final departure into the zone of Russian influence. However, it should be understood that the Belarusian authorities themselves are extremely not interested in such a development of events, so even this trump card turns out to be very doubtful.
What is the benefit Lithuania?
We must not forget that Lithuania itself is interested in inflating another scandal with Belarus.
Provoking tension in relations with neighbors in the East has long been a political specialization of this country, as, indeed, of all other Baltic states.
Having found themselves on the far periphery of the EU and not being able to somehow fundamentally influence European policy, these countries began to actively exploit the topic of “threats from the East”, thereby attracting increased attention and knocking out certain benefits and preferences from the EU and the United States.
And if Russia is the main scarecrow that the Balts frighten the entire “civilized world” with, then the Belarusian topic is no less important for Lithuania. Belarus plays a dual role for Lithuania. On the one hand, Vilnius is trying to be an operator of “ democratic changes “and a guiding star to the” civilized world “ for Minsk. But at the same time, Belarus is a source of all kinds of threats to Lithuania itself. By drawing attention to these “threats”, Lithuania is trying to solve its own problems in the West.
And now Lithuania, referring to the migration threat from Belarus, calls on the EU to invest in strengthening its eastern borders.
And this means additional financing, which is especially important in the context of falling revenues from Belarusian transit, which may be cut off by new European sanctions.