Last month, the Lithuanian government announced plans to fence off a 70-mile stretch of their border with Belarus to keep out migrants. Reuters has reported that 4,100 migrants, mainly from Central Asia and the Middle East, have entered Lithuania. These migrants have arrived from the Belarusian side, and the European Union has accused Belarus of sending migrants into EU nations as retaliation for economic sanctions imposed after Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on the political opposition. Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas was quoted in Reuters accusing Russia, a major Belarus ally, of working with Belarus to create the crisis, saying “We are convinced that, from the very beginning, Belarus has coordinated its actions with Russia.”
Since 2020, the Belarusian people have protested against the ongoing rule of Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and been dubbed “Europe’s last dictator.” In 2020, Belarus held a presidential election in which Lukashenko won his 6th term in office despite claims by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition to Lukashenko, that the election results were rigged and falsified. The disputed elections, coupled with poor economic conditions and the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic by Lukashenko’s regime, emboldened Belarusians to take to the streets in protest against the authoritarian conditions in Belarus.
The European Union responded to the election controversy by issuing a statement on the “so-called ‘inauguration'” of Mikhail Lukashenko. In a declaration issued on the 24th of September 2020, the European Union stated that “the 9 August Belarus Presidential elections were neither free nor fair. The European Union does not recognise their falsified results. On this basis, the so-called ‘inauguration’ of 23 September 2020 and the new mandate claimed by Aleksandr Lukashenko lack any democratic legitimacy.” In conjunction with their condemnation of the electoral results, the European Union imposed sanctions upon 40 Belarusian officials, in a clear rejection of Lukashenko’s legitimacy. Lukashenko responded by accusing the EU and “Western organizations” of an attempt to “harm Belarus” by destabilizing the country by supporting Tsikhanouskaya’s oppositional claim.
Now, according to the BBC, Lithuania and its allies have accused Belarus of flying in migrants from the Middle East to send across the border, in retaliation for EU sanctions. Belarus has since denied this claim, while the European Union has condemned Belarus for trying to “instrumentalise human beings for political purposes.” David Sassoli, the European Parliament President, declared that Belarus could face deeper sanctions for an incident in which Belarusian border officials were accused of physically pushing Iraqi migrants into Lithuania. The incident has forced Lithuania to strengthen its border security, building a razor-wired fence and increasing border personnel in response to Belarus’ actions.
Lithuania sent five Afghan migrants back to Belarus shortly after crossing the Lithuanian border, despite a European Court of Human Rights order allowing the migrants to stay in Lithuania. It seems Belarus and Lithuania are now playing a political chess game using disadvantaged and stateless migrants to push political agendas. Lukashenko’s grip on power has not diminished, despite the domestic and international outcry against his rule. The actions of both nations in using people as political pawns is abhorrent and the people involved in this push-and-pull tussle for power between EU-aligned Vilnius and Minsk deserve better, especially as other EU members such as Poland and Latvia have resorted to pushing migrants back into Belarus amongst an increase in migrant arrivals this year. This game is a continuation of the extreme backlash experienced in parts of Europe in response to an influx of migrants, contributing to the rebirth of far-right movements on the continent.
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