Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko warned European powers on Monday that his country did not seek a conflict with the West. Instead, Minsk required their help to resolve the country’s refugee crisis on the Polish border. Lukashenko indicated that a war could follow if no help was forthcoming.
The country’s state-run Belarusian Telegraph Agency (BELTA) reported the announcement, claiming that Lukashenko had pressured Polish authorities not to escalate the tensions on the border. In his remarks, the Belarusian leader had warned of the danger of confrontation between the two sides, saying, “We understand that if we go too far, war is unavoidable.”
“We don’t want any kind of flare-up,” Lukashenko said before defending his government’s proposal to solve the crisis, in which Germany would accept two thousand border refugees in return for Belarus deporting five thousand people to their home countries. Germany and the European Commission have each refused this plan, claiming that Minsk must fix the refugee problem without expecting those refugees to be allowed to settle in the EU.
Poland, which marks the eastern terminus of the Schengen Area free-travel zone, has flatly refused entry to the migrants, most of whom are from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Polish officials have accused Belarus of assisting migrants’ travel and falsely promising them entry into western Europe as a means for retaliation against European sanctions of Belarus in the aftermath of that country’s controversial 2020 election. Some reports suggest that Belarusian border guards provided migrants with axes and wire cutters to help them cut through border fencing.
Conditions along the border are becoming increasingly difficult, with food scarce and temperatures dropping below freezing as winter approaches. More than a dozen migrants have died attempting to cross the border so far.
Belarusian authorities have made a belated attempt to deport some migrants, and have tried to ensure others’ safe treatment by clearing out a series of migrant camps along the Poland-Belarus border and rehousing their populations in nearby warehouses. However, Poland has accused Minsk of continuing to attract additional refugees, even as pressure mounts on Lukashenko to resolve the crisis.
Lukashenko, sometimes referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” was the target of a wave of unsuccessful protests in the summer and fall of 2020 after international organizations accused him of rigging the country’s presidential election in his favor. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, that election’s official runner-up, was forced into exile in neighboring Lithuania after widespread reports that she had won the vote.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.