Dictator’s cynical game

Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 10 August 2021

Writing this ‘Spotlight on Europe’ column every fortnight is a rare luxury. It allows me to reflect on anything interesting about Europe these days. In our media environment, in which foreign affairs barely feature beyond the big geopolitical stories, this is almost unheard of.

So, let me stretch the mandate of this column to write about one of the smallest European countries: Lithuania. Despite its size – and through no fault of its own – the Baltic republic could suddenly find itself at the centre of the next big European crisis.

For months, a conflict on Lithuania’s border has been simmering, and now it threatens to escalate. What is happening there is bizarre. Except, when you have a neighbour like Belarus, everything is possible.

Belarus is systematically flying in refugees from Iraq and other Asian countries. Once in the capital Minsk, they are put on buses and taken straight to places somewhere along the 680 kilometres-long Belarusian-Lithuanian border. The refugees are then told to cross the border illegally and enter Lithuanian – and thus EU – territory.

Normal countries would not behave like that, but Belarus is a country like no other.

If you google “Europe’s last dictator”, it will take you straight to the entries for Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian President. Since 1994, he has led a regime for which the characterisation ‘authoritarian’ is euphemistic.

According to international observers, even Lukashenko’s first presidential election in 1994 was dubious. Every vote since has been an even stronger farce with frequent violent attacks on the opposition, rigged results, and intimidations of the press.

It was Germany’s first openly homosexual foreign secretary, the late Guido Westerwelle, who coined the phrase “Europe’s last dictator” in 2012. Lukashenko did not seem to have a problem with it. His response was: “It is better to be a dictator than to be gay.”

When Lukashenko does not attack the LGBT community, his antisemitism keeps him busy. He is on the record praising Adolf Hitler’s leadership skills, and only this year he gave a speech in which he fabulated about a Jewish world conspiracy.

With this kind of behaviour, Lukashenko has isolated his country from large parts of the international community. However, he maintains solid relations with authoritarian regimes such as North Korea, Cuba, Iran and China, and has a special frenemy-ship with Russia.

Lukashenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have both had their clashes with the West. Out of that shared experience – and Lukashenko’s former desire to resurrect the Soviet Union – grew a unique relationship between the two presidents. At times, they may annoy the hell out of each other, but they also enjoy antagonising mutual enemies.

No wonder Putin was among the first to congratulate Lukashenko after his latest ‘election victory’ in August 2020. Also unsurprisingly, the West responded to the open electoral fraud with further sanctions against the Belarusian regime – never mind similar policies have been in place for decades, with limited success.

Belarus’ tensions with the West escalated further when Belarus forced Ryan Air flight 4978 from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk. That was in May this year, and the purpose of this state hijacking was to arrest ex-pat Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, an outspoken critic of the Lukashenko regime. Protasevich has been in captivity since. Once again, the European Union’s response was further economic sanctions against Lukashenko.

After the sham election of 2020 and the hijacking of the Ryan Air flight, it was hard to imagine Belarusian-EU relations could get worse – but they did.

Lukashenko’s latest scheme attacks the EU’s territorial integrity, and he plays that card via Belarus’ small neighbour Lithuania.

As one of the three Baltic states, Lithuania regained its independence in 1990. Ever since, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia have lived under the constant fear of being sucked back into Russia’s sphere of influence. Not least to counter that threat, all three of them have joined NATO, the EU, the Eurozone and the free-travel Schengen Area.

However, membership does not guarantee protection. Countries with an external EU border always remain vulnerable, especially those with an aggressive neighbour like Belarus.

Short of a military strike, channelling refugees towards the Lithuanian border is Belarus’ most promising attack on the EU’s sovereignty. Once the refugees have made it into Lithuania, they are on EU ground and likely to be passed on to other EU members. From Lukashenko’s perspective, Lithuania is the EU’s weakest link, and he is keen to exploit it.

Lithuania is understandably alarmed by these developments. Though neighbouring a dictatorship had never been easy, the unprecedented aggression on its land border has caught Lithuania by surprise.

The Lithuanian institutions are now scrambling for solutions. They have started securing the border with barbed wire. They called in support from the EU’s European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and Estonia. They have issued a joint statement with Poland calling on the EU for help in protecting their borders (Poland has a border with Belarus, too). They are even recruiting new border guards with courses lasting only four weeks.

The EU, meanwhile, expressed its solidarity with Lithuania and sent its Commissioner for the Interior Ylva Johansson to Vilnius. She promised to support the country yet admitted that the border situation was not under control and deteriorating every day. Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has sent a representative to Lithuania.

Lukashenko is playing a cynical game. He abuses the plight of refugees by turning these vulnerable people into political weapons. And he uses small and defenceless Lithuania as a point of attack against the EU.

The real winner in this contemptuous plot, however, is Russia’s Putin. Without getting engaged himself, he can watch from afar how powerless Western institutions such as the EU and NATO are against the inflow of a few thousand refugees. And how Lithuania’s refugee problem revives the never-ending dilemma of the EU’s refugee policy.

If the EU is not careful and cannot stop Lukashenko soon, the damage to the EU’s integrity and its credibility could be severe. Lithuania badly needs more than just warm words of support.

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