Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s willful manipulation of migrants, enabling their easy passage to and through his country toward the border of the European Union, is a classic assault on democracy by an autocrat who knows that any attempt to fight back risks undermining the bloc’s sacred values.
Lukashenko denies the condemnation made by the G7 group of the world’s wealthiest democracies that he is orchestrating “irregular migration” in an “aggressive and exploitative” campaign – just as he rejects the European Union’s accusation that his re-election as president last year, his sixth consecutive five-year term, was a sham.
Not for nothing is the aging autocrat known outside of Belarus as Europe’s last dictator.
For much of this month, the world watched as weary migrants, some with small children and mainly from the Middle East, were coaxed and coerced in freezing conditions to a forest border with the EU. Their rising anger at not being allowed to cross erupted at times as they hurled volleys of rocks at Polish border guards who eventually spewed water cannon fire back at them.
In a revealing interview with CNN last week, Lukashenko’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, exposed the psychology behind his boss’s decision to launch a frontal attack on Europe’s borders. “Belarus has shown the dark side of the European democracy,” he claimed.
US President Joe Biden made it an early theme of his term in office, that democracy is under attack. “We’re at an inflection point,” he told an audience in Germany in February. “We must demonstrate that democracy can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission.”
But how to deliver on that mission is something that has yet to be mastered. Biden promised a “summit of democracies” “early” in his presidency, it is due to take place next month, although details are sketchy.
Biden’s leverage is waning among allies, due to diplomatic missteps such as the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the AUKUS security pact with Australia and the UK that marginalized France. Meanwhile, autocrats like Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to be exploiting the opportunity to divide, discourage and sow dissent in the democracies closest to them, in Europe.
When Belarusian foreign minister Makei told CNN that: “Poland has violated all the possible international legal laws and democratic values,” he turned logic on its head by ignoring Lukashenko’s autocratic practices, such as what some governments condemned as the illegal “hijacking” of a commercial airliner that was diverted to Minsk, and arresting a Belarus opposition activist who was on board.
Cynically crying wolf, while wilfully ignoring their own violations is a convenience that autocracies routinely use to cover their tracks.
On the face of it, how can the EU that champions human rights turn its back on migrants, less still turn water cannons on them? Human Rights groups have criticized Poland for preventing journalists from having access to the border region, and for allegedly pushing migrants who had successfully made it across the razor wire fence back into Belarus.
It is the caring side of democracy, that values human rights and decency, that Biden and others fear autocracies exploit. At one point last week, Lukashenko’s government proposed that Germany should take in 2,000 migrants and Belarus would handle the rest.
According to Lukashenko’s foreign minister, both his boss and Putin were pushing Merkel into some sort of deal. “It was President Putin who tried to contribute to the settlement of this crisis. He had conversations with Chancellor Merkel, he had conversations with President Lukashenko and as a result of these conversations, the phone calls between Merkel and Lukashenko were organized.”