As Alexander Lukashenko adopts tried-and-tested methods of autocrats and dictators, the crisis on Lithuania’s border has become a litmus test for EU solidarity, as well as a common migration policy. Stefano Braghiroli, associate professor at Estonia’s Tartu University, writes for LRT English.
Lithuania is currently facing the most severe migration crisis since the country’s restoration of independence in 1991. With about 80 migrants entering Lithuania during the entire 2020, a staggering number of 4,000 asylum seekers have crossed the country’s borders in just two months.
While the crisis started as Minsk’s reaction to the progressive international isolation following the forced landing of the Ryanair Flight 4978 and the growing autocratisation experienced by the country, the migration waves that it implied and its weaponisation were artificially designed as an intentional hostile act.
In the context of the EU and its neighbourhood, for the first time we are witnessing a regime that is not simply using migration as a tool of geopolitical pressure, but – according to many observers – deliberately organises it with the specific goal to destabilise a neighbouring country.
As a consequence of this state-led smuggling operation which – as we learnt recently – bridges Iraq and other migration hotspots to Minsk and, from there, to the borders of the EU, Lithuania found itself at the centre of a completely unexpected migration crisis.
Overnight, Lithuania found itself in the uncomfortable shoes already worn by Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, and Hungarians. Lithuania turned itself from a reluctant solidarity provider to an eager solidarity receiver.
After years spent talking about migration with almost no migrants, refugees actually started coming in large numbers. The waves of the shock extended far beyond Lithuania, to the Baltics and Poland, and are far from under control as witnessed by Latvia’s freshly declared state of emergency.
While a number of domestic and international observers now recall Baltic and Lithuania’s uneasiness with the EU-sponsored quota system as a sort of karma effect, if anything this crisis teaches us one lesson – it can happen to everyone.
Even if you are far from migration routes, migrants can come (or be brought) to you en masse at any time, by means of state-organised routes exploiting people’s desperation.
But how well does this ‘Baltic route’ compare to the Balkan and Mediterranean migration crises experienced by the EU over the past decade? Not too well in terms of numbers, human component, and triggering factors – well enough in terms of background strategies and its functional utilisation by aspiring autocrats and dictators.
At the beginning of the Balkan migration crisis, Erdogan’s repeated threat to Europe to expect millions of migrants after Turkey opens borders is well known as well as Brussels’ leniency to Ankara’s requests.
Erdogan’s blackmail translated into the infamous EU-Turkey deal and in a package worth more than 6 billion euros and – most importantly – in Brussels turning an almost blind eye to Turkey’s democratic decline.
Lukashenko’s words “we used to catch migrants in droves here – now, forget it, you will be catching them yourselves” almost perfectly echo Gaddafi’s threat in 2010 to Italy and the whole EU. As a consequence, Libya received very generous economic support from Rome and Brussels to prevent migrants from reaching the coasts of southern Europe.
In other words, a criminal regime was subsidised to take care of others’ “dirty work”. The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime and the end of its brutal containment of migration from Sub-Saharan Africa was one of the factors that triggered a new migration wave across the Mediterranean.
The weaponisation of migration is no new phenomenon: just think of Castro’s political use of mass migration of Cuban refugees during the so-called Mariel boatlift in 1980. Many of the asylum seekers who reached Florida’s shores had been just released from jails and mental health facilities in Cuba.
Lukashenko did not invent anything new. He seems to have simply learnt a lesson from fellow autocrats.
However, what distinguishes Belarus from Turkey, Libya, and even Cuba – and reveals the direct involvement of the regime – is that Lukashenko’s kingdom does not host any significant refugee community (Turkey hosts roughly four million refugees) and is not crossed by any significant migration route.
Different independent investigations have proven that the Belarusian regime has systematically organised the airlift of almost 5,000 migrants from Iraq and the Middle East to the borders of the EU with the explicit goal of destabilising a neighbouring country and the EU’s efforts to support the Belarusian people’s aspirations to freedom and democracy.
In the eyes of Lukashenko and his shaky pariah regime, this appears as a perfectly acceptable tool. If the blackmailing trick worked for Gaddafi’s Libya and Erdogan’s Turkey (an EU candidate country), why wouldn’t it work for the Belarusian regime?
The crisis at Lithuania’s border is subsiding following Brussels’ direct pressure and conditionality of humanitarian aid on the Iraqi government. Charter flights from Iraq to Minsk are now suspended and Lithuania’s border appears more secure and less permeable thanks to the very significant support in terms of material and human resources provided by the EU, its member states, and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). The EU has also committed itself to supporting the creation of an effective fence on Lithuania’s external border and is supporting the establishment of refugee camps to take care of the asylum seekers’ primary needs.
Overall, Brussels’ credible response and actions in support of the Lithuanian authorities and EU member states’ tangible solidarity seem to be the key reasons why Lukashenko’s dirty trick didn’t work – so far.
In Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s words: “One thing is for sure: your worries and your problems in Lithuania are European problems. I wanted to reinforce that, we really stand by your side in this difficult time.” This time, words were followed by actions.
Along with tangible solidarity, both in terms of material and human resources, Brussels’ diplomatic posture also made a difference, as there was no scaling back on sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime and on the retaliatory actions following the kidnapping of Roman Protasevich and air piracy against an EU aircraft.
At the same time, the imperfect voice of EU diplomacy managed to change the indulgent behaviour of the Iraqi authorities.
Worth noting is also Brussels’ more consistent, and less chaotic, perspective on migration – if compared to the 2015 crisis. During her visit to Lithuania, Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson stressed Lithuania’s right and the EU commitment to “protect the European external border […] safeguard European internal security”, thereby endorsing the Lithuanian government’s measures of containment and pushback of migrants into Belarus-- in what appears to be a clear change of perspective and stance in the Commission’s language.
Lessons learned from the Balkan and Mediterranean crises go hand in hand with the definition of an effective EU-wide protection of the Union’s external borders at a supranational level, of which the consolidation of Frontex as the EU’s first standing corps is an initial step.
Since the creation of the Schengen Area and the abolition of internal borders, the joint protection of the European external border has been the missing piece of the puzzle, despite a common visa policy and a Europeanised asylum policy. Now, we have all the member states’ attention – from east to west, from north to south.
For the first time, we have witnessed a coordinated and rapid effort to sustain a member state facing the challenge of migration and human trafficking not based on individual countries’ voluntarism, but on an effective coordination of the EU’s supranational institutions.
Despite its remaining deficiencies, the current EU treaty structure provides the necessary legal framework for a common European response – the solidarity clause in case of a terrorist attack or when a member-state falls victim to a natural or man-made disaster (article 222 TFEU).
Should the crisis continue and deepen, we might see the Lithuanian authorities calling for the formal activation of these provisions.
Paraphrasing Churchill’s words, this is clearly not the end of the process. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned during his 2017 State of the Union speech that “we must complete the European House now that the sun is shining [...]. Because when the next clouds appear on the horizon – and they will appear one day – it will be too late.”
When it comes to managing migration flows and protecting the EU external borders, that day has come and there is no time to wait for another crisis. European capitals are at a crossroad and left with no other choice but to overcome this unprecedented challenge together and complete the European House.
Let’s also not forget that solidarity is the cement that keeps the house together. Solidarity represents one of the founding principles at the basis of European integration, if not the key one.
Without institutionalising solidarity, the European project would not have come to life. Although, too often, solidarity has been more in words than in practice, more declared than pursued. Denying it would mean denying the very nature of the European project, which is chiefly about sharing “in good times and in bad”.
Stefano Braghiroli is Associate Professor of European Studies, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies – University of Tartu, Estonia
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.