Minsk escalates its threats on the Belarus/EU border
In recent weeks, the media have reported a number of statements by representatives of the Belarusian State Border Committee (SBC), who have threatened to weaken their protection of the border with EU states, in response to the EU tightening its sanctions against Belarus.At the same time, a media campaign has been conducted by the Belarusian KGB which links criminal groups involved in people smuggling to terrorist activities, and has highlighted the terrorist ties of illegal migrants. These actions show that Belarus is using the issue of border security as a bargaining chip in its deteriorating relations with the West. Minsk’s aim is to make sure that the EU sanctions do not get any tighter, and to impede the functioning of border services of Belarus’s EU neighbours in retaliation for those sanctions which are already in place. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka resorted to similar measures in 2002, when during the final phase of accession negotiations between Poland and the EU, he threatened that 150,000 migrants then allegedly residing in Belarus could enter Europe.
The SBC promises weaker border security
The weakening of controls on traffic leaving Belarus in response to the tightening of EU sanctions was announced on 6 April by the head of the State Border Committee (SBC), General Ihar Rachkouski, at a meeting of the Border Committee of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. He warned that EU sanctions against Belarus would have a negative impact on the neighbouring countries; and that in relation to the sanctions, the border service would focus on protecting their own territory and not on protecting the neighbouring countries.
The communiqué from the State Border Committee on 17 April was similar in tone. It stated that security along Belarus’s border with Ukraine would be reinforced at the expense of its borders with Poland and Lithuania. This decision was justified by an increase in smuggling, as well as by a reduction in disparities in border protection, wherein the EU section has been guarded better than the rest. If extra detachments of the Belarusian border guard were moved to the Ukrainian section, this would adversely affect the protection of the border with Belarus’s EU neighbours.
The matter came to light when on 18 April the BelaPAN agency, citing an anonymous high-ranking SBC official, reported that Belarus would review its policy on the border with EU countries (Poland, Lithuania and Latvia) in response to the EU sanctions; priority will henceforth be given to controlling traffic entering Belarus (previously, both entry and exit traffic had been supervised with equal scrutiny).
The KGB links illegal migration with terrorism
At the same time as the announcement of the weakening of border protection in April, the Belarusian KGB carried out an intensive media campaign aimed at associating illegal immigration with terrorist threats. Over the past two months, both the headquarters of the KGB and its regional structures have repeatedly reported on operations aimed at eliminating organised groups of people responsible for people-smuggling. The Belarusian security service has also clearly stated that illegal migrants are mostly affiliated with terrorist organisations. The KGB’s insistence on exploiting the theme of terrorism was clearly demonstrated by the 24 May arrest of an alleged terrorist who was attempting to blow up a police building in the Homel region. According to the KGB, this individual was linked to a criminal group engaged in smuggling Afghans into European countries. Apart from directly announcing a terrorist threat, the Belarusian services have also highlighted an increase in the number of migrants from Arab countries; according to the Belarusian Interior Ministry, 2500 more of them were recorded as entering the country in 2012 than in the year before.
The KGB campaign has been supported by President Lukashenka, who on 8 May said that despite the EU sanctions Belarus would protect its border, due to the increase in crime and the threat of people coming to Belarus from Arab countries who were associated with terrorist groups. He emphasised his country’s significant financial outlay on border protection (around US$1 million per year), as well as the "ingratitude" of the EU.
The announcement that the border will be made ‘leakier’, together with the use of the argument that illegal migrants have ties to terrorism, shows that the Belarusian government is using the border question with the EU as a political instrument. Nor can we rule out the possibility that the Belarusian border guard is selectively assisting illegal migrants in crossing the border. The immediate effect of these actions is to hinder the functioning of the border services of Belarus’s EU neighbours, especially in the absence of any readmission agreements. Given that the question of border security is important for the EU, and that it is one of Minsk’s few bargaining chips, Lukashenka is treating the issue as a tool of retaliation for the sanctions introduced by the EU, as well as an instrument of pressure in order to prevent the sanctions from being tightened any further. An additional goal is to increase funding for border protection from the EU to Belarus.
We must expect Belarus to escalate tensions further, both verbally and in the deliberate obstruction of the work of EU countries’ border services, especially those of Poland (by means of purposeful inaction, lax control procedures, and perhaps even by facilitating the entry of illegal migrants into the EU).