Belarus Moves to De-escalate Migrant Crisis on EU Border
(Bloomberg) -- Belarus moved toward de-escalating a crisis on the European Union’s eastern frontier, providing shelter for some of the migrants stuck on its border and pushing for a diplomatic solution with the continent’s heavyweight Germany.
Faced with a prospect of new sanctions and accusations of waging a “hybrid attack” on the EU, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko spoke with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a second time this week on Wednesday, a day after the most violent clashes to date on the border with Poland.
State news agency Belta said the pair “came to a certain understanding of how to proceed” and sought to “immediately” start EU-Belarus talks.
Even as Germany’s readout from the call was more cautious, EU nations neighboring Belarus -- and most affected by the crisis -- frowned upon the prospects of Lukashenko dealing directly with Berlin and Brussels, which could undermine their own interests.
“The Chancellor underscored the need to ensure humanitarian care and the opportunity to return for those affected,” according to a German government statement. She seeks to resolve the crisis with help from the United Nations and “in cooperation with the European Commission,” it said.
More than 1,000 migrants, mostly from the Middle East, spent the night in a Belarusian warehouse near the Kuznica border crossing with Poland, instead of in makeshift camps scattered along the EU frontier as has been the case for months.
Nine Polish soldiers were hurt by rocks and other projectiles, including stun grenades, thrown across the border on Tuesday. Polish forces used water cannon as well as tear gas to repel migrants storming the Kuznica crossing and registered 161 attempts of illegal entry overnight, the border service said Wednesday.
The conflict, which has been brewing since Belarusian forces started ushering migrants to EU borders, has threatened to turn into a military struggle with the build up of fortifications and troop numbers at the frontiers, as well as a humanitarian disaster with autumn temperatures drop below freezing.
Some 7,000 migrants are in Belarus with plans to enter the EU, according to Polish government estimates. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Tuesday that his country was “tightening” its migration regime as the bloc started to pressure Middle East nations to curb flights to Belarus.
Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak warned that his country had to be prepared for the Belarus standoff to last months, if not years. He has deployed roughly 15,000 troops, border guards and police to the frontier, which remains cordoned off from the media and human-rights groups since early October.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko discussed “paths to resolving the crisis” and called for the start of direct talks between the EU and Minsk, which triggered anger in Warsaw and Vilnius.
Polish President Andrzej Duda told his German counterpart on Wednesday that his country “wouldn’t recognize any arrangements regarding the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border that would be made over our heads.” Hours later, Merkel called Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to discuss “the close German-Polish coordination on the worrying” EU border situation, her spokesman said.
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the EU should remain skeptical and warned that Lukashenko may be seeing the standoff as a way to regain his international legitimacy following last year’s contested president election and the ensuing brutal crackdown in the country he has led since 1994.
“Lukashenko might start thinking that he’s becoming a West-recognized leader – as one who can resolve the crisis, despite being the one who caused it,” Landsbergis said. After news of the Berlin-Minsk talks, he said that Lithuania received “worrying signals” that the bloc was considering removing Belavia, the Belarusian airline which has been bringing migrants to Minsk, from its looming sanctions list.
Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets called for the EU to remain united in its values, saying Lukashenko was trying to stop sanctions and gain recognition as the leader of Belarus. The EU, jointly with the U.S. and possibly the U.K., may announce another round of penalties against Belarus early next month.
The situation at the border, meanwhile, remains tense with temperatures dropping and 2,000 migrants gathered along the forest frontier with Poland and a further 1,500 near Lithuania, according to estimates by the two EU nation governments.
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