Migrants from the Middle East become pawns in the new cold war

Migrants gather at a transport and logistics center near the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region of Belarus.
Image credit: Reuters

Winter is approaching and thousands of migrants from Iraq, Syria and Yemen remain trapped in the freezing cold on the Belarus-Poland border. Their goal is crystal clear: to reach EU states like Germany, France or Belgium as soon as possible. But the tensions resulting from a dreaded new Cold War mean that these desperate refugees from the Middle East are being used as pawns in a geopolitical game.

For Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the policy is very simple: the more restrictions the EU places on Belarus, the more migrants it will attract. Brussels does not intend to back down, however. The EU has agreed to impose additional sanctions on Belarus. While the final details are still being worked out, they are expected to target around 30 people and entities, including the country’s foreign minister and Belarusian airline Belavia. Lukashenko, for his part, threatens to retaliate by cutting off gas supplies to Europe.

Such a move would undoubtedly have a severe impact on the entire continent given that Russia has already cut gas supplies to the EU, leading to a huge increase in energy prices. However, given that the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline that crosses Belarusian territory is owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom, Lukashenko can only stop the gas transit if he gets the green light from Moscow. If the Kremlin decides to raise the stakes and approves Lukashenko’s decision, blackouts in many European countries could very well become a reality.

Well aware that the migrant crisis could worsen and have serious consequences, the West has already started to put pressure on Russia to limit Lukashenko’s actions. If Brussels really imposes sanctions on a Russian company like Aeroflot, the Kremlin could react by banning the passage of Western airlines on Russian territory, which would undoubtedly lead to an increase in the price of plane tickets to many destinations.

European threats against Aeroflot have been taken very seriously by Turkish Airlines. The company has confirmed that it no longer accepts Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni nationals on board their flights to Minsk, with the exception of those holding diplomatic passports. Indeed, after the EU pressured Iraq to suspend all flights to Belarus, most migrants started to travel to Minsk via Istanbul. Now the Turkish route has been cut. The West should continue to try to prevent such arrangements, but if Lukashenko can be determined to continue to retaliate against EU sanctions.

Poland, along with Lithuania and Latvia, are erecting barriers along their borders with Belarus. Recent history shows that such a measure could be very effective. In 2017, the Hungarian government completed a barbed wire fence along its border with Serbia. The result has been a decrease in attempts by migrants to enter the EU illegally. But if Lukashenko doesn’t stop pursuing a cold war with the EU, he could redirect the refugees south, to Ukraine. Asylum seekers would then try to travel to Poland, Slovakia or Hungary, on their way to the wealthiest European countries.

From Belarus’ perspective, Western actions in the Middle East (Iraq) have destroyed the country and migrants are now forced to seek a better life elsewhere. That is why Belarusian authorities constantly remind the EU that it has accepted the principle that if a person flees a war zone and somehow reaches Germany, France or any other member of the EU, she can apply for refugee status. Belarus’ ally Russia, through its Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, accused the EU of double standards, claiming that when refugees arrived in Europe from Turkish territory, Brussels allocated funds to keep them in Turkey. In other words, Lavrov suggested that the West should pay Lukashenko to stop sending migrants to the EU.

Such an option does not seem very realistic. From the EU’s point of view, any concession to Belarus, be it financial aid or the lifting of sanctions, would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. This is why the West refuses to negotiate directly with Lukashenko and has focused on its talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned the Russian leader twice in a week in an attempt to resolve the migrant crisis. But any deal the West and Russia could make will just have to include Lukashenko.

The Belarusian president is not Putin’s pal, no matter how dependent his country is on Russia. The two leaders have a history of disagreements and strife, especially in terms of energy arrangements, and Lukashenko has always strived to preserve Belarusian sovereignty as much as possible. As Putin himself said recently, the Belarusian president is a difficult negotiator. The EU is learning this the hard way.

Nikola Mikovic is a political columnist in Serbia. His work focuses on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

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