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EU pressure on Belarus over migrant crisis boosts hopes of a detente

German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Belarus’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko for the second time in three days on Wednesday, part of a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at de-escalating the migrant crisis on Belarus’s borders with the EU.

Lukashenko’s press service said the two had reached “a certain understanding on how to move forward and solve existing issues”. Merkel’s spokesman said merely that the chancellor had “underlined the need to provide humanitarian care and return options” for the migrants stranded at the border, and added that UN agencies and the European Commission should be involved.

The talks between Merkel and Lukashenko follow a burst of diplomatic contacts that have raised tentative hopes that it could be possible to alleviate the crisis. Thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, are camped at the Belarus-Poland border as winter approaches.

On Tuesday about 100 migrants clashed with Polish forces in an attempt to force their way across the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing that Poland said was “co-ordinated” by Belarusian forces.

EU officials have accused Lukashenko’s regime of orchestrating the crisis in retaliation for the EU’s support for the Belarusian opposition, and the bloc’s foreign ministers agreed this week on the legal basis for a new round of sanctions against Minsk.

But there has also been an increase in contacts with the Belarusian leadership. As well as Merkel’s conversations with Lukashenko, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has spoken twice to Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei, and French president Emmanuel Macron has talked to Lukashenko’s main ally, Russian president Vladimir Putin.

EU diplomats said the talks with Lukashenko’s regime stemmed from a calculation that the pressure on him was starting to build. European lobbying efforts to cut flights ferrying migrants from the Middle East to Belarus have begun to bear fruit. And Putin’s public chiding of Lukashenko over a threat he made last week to cut off Russian gas supplies to the EU was viewed as a sign of a possible shift in the mood in Moscow.

“Putin has started to rein Lukashenko in publicly on the gas transit. He [Lukashenko] is under a lot of pressure and we are now possibly seeing first signs of de-escalation from the regime,” said a senior EU diplomat.

Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus. Diplomats said recent contact with the authoritarian leader stemmed from a calculation that pressure on the regime was building © Nikolai Petrov/Belta/Reuters

Merkel’s direct contact with Lukashenko has sparked unease in Poland and the Baltic states, and outright criticism from Belarus’s opposition, which worries that, rather than seeking to resolve the crisis, Lukashenko could merely exploit the talks for domestic propaganda purposes.

“I think it was a mistake,” said Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, after Merkel first spoke to Lukashenko. “Right now it is too toxic to talk to Lukashenko.”

But others said the gambit was worth trying if it offered a chance of easing the crisis. “Any conflict resolution requires a compromise. We can’t solve it not letting [Lukashenko] win something,” said an EU diplomat.

Eva-Maria Liimets, Estonia’s foreign minister, said on Tuesday that, during his first conversation with Merkel, Lukashenko had demanded he be recognised as Belarusian president — something the EU had refused to do since last year’s election — and that sanctions on his regime be lifted in exchange for ending the migrant crisis.

European officials said a wholesale removal of existing sanctions was unrealistic. “We should not accept blackmail or threats to change the position of the EU. Should we close our eyes to the fact that there are still 800 political prisoners in Belarus, that people are repressed, tortured and beaten? No,” said Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy foreign minister. “Without a change in that regard, there can be no change in EU policy.”

Diplomats were also doubtful that the new sanctions being drawn up against Minsk could be staved off. “I think it’s too late. A lot would need to happen in a very short period of time to prevent this from happening,” said one western diplomat.

A more realistic deal, the diplomat added, would be one in which the EU provided financial or logistical support to ease the humanitarian crisis. The European Commission said on Wednesday that it had allocated €700,000 in assistance for people at the border.

A migrant attempts to destroy a fence during violent clashes at the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on Tuesday
A migrant attempts to destroy a fence during violent clashes at the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on Tuesday © Leonid Shcheglov/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

Katia Glod, an expert on Belarus from the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank, said that apart from trying to remove sanctions, Lukashenko had an incentive to de-escalate.

“With these migrants coming to Minsk and other cities, they might stir up tension among the electorate of Lukashenko,” she added. “So I think there is also motivation from the regime side in Belarus to finish the crisis.”

But others are less hopeful. Although Polish officials said on Wednesday that the situation at the Kuznica border crossing had improved after Belarusian forces led migrants away to an unknown location, they estimate there are still several thousand migrants in Belarus. Poland’s defence minister warned on Wednesday that the crisis could continue for “months”.

“There is maybe a 30 or 40 per cent chance of success,” said the western diplomat. “There is still a bigger likelihood that it doesn’t work. But the chances have increased in the last few days. [Before the recent diplomacy] it was zero.”


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