LRT English Newsletter – August 6, 2021.
Hours after EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson visited the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, Vilnius announced it would be stopping migrants crossing from Belarus, indicating a shift toward the generally controversial practice of pushbacks.
Lithuanian officials say that, amid what constitutes “hybrid aggression” and crossings en masse, the measures are justified. Human rights bodies and observers have hinted Lithuania is walking on “thin ice” of international law by turning migrants back and diverting them to border posts and diplomatic representations, where they can ask for asylum.
According to the Red Cross, it’s important for Lithuania to remain the country that carries “the flag of human rights”. Now, the migrants are left in an information vacuum, with frustrations already boiling over into protests and an alleged suicide attempt. The regime of Alexander Lukashenko, meanwhile, has been all too happy to use the alleged “hypocrisy” in Lithuania’s human rights advocacy in Belarus to white-wash its own image.
Videos have already surfaced on social media showing Russian-speaking people behind the camera asking whether “firearms” were used against the returned migrants. These outtakes preceded a video allegedly showing migrants running from gunfire on the Lithuanian side. Needless to say, the video appears to be fake.
The alleged killing of an Iraqi national in Belarus, however, is more serious. Minsk claimed he had died from sustained injuries and Lukashenko himself called for an investigation. Lithuanian officials dismissed the incident as a “provocation”. Iraqi Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, warned the country’s nationals not to fall victim to human trafficking.
With tensions seemingly escalating – and the Lithuanian officers barring journalists from the border for the time being – Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas has said the country hopes to avoid “armed provocations”.
You can follow all the latest updates on the border situation here.
FACILITATING, ENABLING, AND GUIDING?
Lithuania has published what seems to be the first video proof of Belarusian authorities guiding and escorting the migrants. Another photo also appears to show people in uniform taking down barbed wire from the Belarusian side of the border.
The diplomatic efforts on behalf of the EU bloc may be beginning to pay off, as the first flight from Iraq to Belarus – the main source of irregular migration to Lithuania – has been cancelled. This comes after Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said Brussels will press Iraq to act. Nausėda is also due to meet his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for talks on stemming migration to Lithuania.
GREY ZONE AGGRESSION CONTINUES?
The regime of Alexander Lukashenko seems to be repeating its earlier playbook (read more on grey zone aggression here). Lithuanian police have launched a probe into threats to stage terror attacks in Vilnius after a company received a letter claiming that an undisclosed group will avenge “Muslim brothers”. This likely follows the earlier template, when Belarus claimed it was forced to divert the Vilnius-bound Ryanair flight to Minsk – where an opposition journalist and his partner were arrested – in response to a bomb threat allegedly received from Hamas militants. The group denied its involvement in the May 2021 incident.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has seemingly hinted that, if migration flows cease, Lithuania will not push for new sanctions against Minsk.
CLOSING CORONA DOORS
Under a preliminary plan disclosed on Wednesday, those without immunity will face significant curbs come September. Large shops, public transport, hairdressers, cafes, and more may become off limits unless a person has tested negative, recovered from the coronavirus, or has been jabbed. One of the main reasons for the move is that the Delta variant is now dominant.
– Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius has publicly announced his new life partner, whose previous business dealings with the municipality have laid the ground for conflict of interest suspicions.
– After the killing of a Belarusian dissident in Ukraine, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – who was forced to flee to Vilnius – says she understands she "can disappear at any moment".
– With Ukraine threading the same hardline on Alexander Lukashenko as Lithuania and Poland, has the brittle friendship between Kyiv and Minsk come to an end? Yegor Vasylyev, analyst and political consultant specialising in politics and governance of post-Soviet states, writes for LRT English.
– A court in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, has ordered the local authorities to agree on a route for an LGBTQ+ march. It had previously declined three separate requests from the organisers.
– Thirty years ago, Lithuania suffered one of the bloodiest incidents on its path towards independence, when Soviet special police attacked a border post in Medininkai.
– Cut off from German tourists by the pandemic, Lithuania's Nida is looking for a new target audience – one that may be younger and louder.
– Despite Beijing’s professed sense of outrage, Lithuania is proceeding with plans to host a de facto Taiwan embassy and to open a trade office in Taipei. Sean King, a scholar on Asia and vice president of a New York consultancy firm, takes a closer look.
– The medieval ruler of Lithuania had a taste for pomp and populated his court with ‘exotic’ characters – like the ones he saw in German courts. Delve into the courtly traditions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
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Written by Benas Gerdžiūnas
Edited by Justinas Šuliokas