The fight against the Lukashenko regime takes an unexpected turn

Alexander Lukashenko
Aleksandr Lukashenka RIA/Scanpix

The strategy to stop illegal migration from Belarus has taken a turn that was unexpected for Lithuanian politicians: outgoing German Chancellor Merkel spoke to Belarusian dictator Lukashenko on the phone to discuss the situation on the country’s border with EU countries, reported.

For Lithuania and Poland, which are experiencing an influx of migrants, talking to Lukashenko, who the West does not recognise, is a complete taboo. The German Chancellor’s move clearly clashes with the policy of ignoring the dictator.

Moreover, French President Macron has also discussed the migrant crisis with Russian President Putin. However, neither Vilnius nor Warsaw has ever initiated a dialogue with Moscow and calls for a consistent sanctions policy against Russia.

Are these talks a retreat from the policy of ignoring Lukashenko, while still allowing Putin to influence EU decisions?

On the migrant crisis, there has so far been an unusual unity of political forces in Lithuania, with the President and the Government speaking with more or less the same voice on this challenge.

But Merkel’s assessment of the conversation is already fundamentally different.

President Nausėda’s advisor A. Skaisgirytė, and soon the head of state himself, even congratulated Merkel for her efforts to discuss the migrant crisis directly with the Belarusian dictator.

In an interview with the BBC, Nausėda said that “we have to talk to the person who is responsible for what is happening at the border” because by approaching Lukashenko, there might be a chance to resolve the migrant crisis.

However, it is unclear what the President meant when he said that “we have to talk to him”. Did he also mean Lithuanian politicians?

Because he has stressed in the past that Lukashenko only needs to be sent signals of harsh sanctions instead of negotiating with him. How can we understand such a turn of events by the President? By the way, Mr Nausėda himself, commenting on his words to the BBC, explained that to talk is not to negotiate.

Be that as it may, Nausėda now seems to be in solidarity with Merkel, who clearly tends to follow the pragmatic policy of Germany, where preconceived values are no obstacle to dialogue or even to compromise in order to achieve concrete goals and benefits.

Incidentally, Merkel called Lukashenko shortly after the EU had agreed on new sanctions against Belarus. This is akin to a whip and carrot policy: on the one hand, punishing Minsk airport, tourist agencies and individuals, on the other, signalling that a more peaceful solution to the crisis might be possible.

Until now, Lithuania has insisted that it is not only Lukashenko who is not to be spoken to – no political contacts are allowed, not even at the level of vice-ministers.

However, the German Chancellor has only been openly slammed by conservatives – MEP A. Kubilius, who called Merkel’s call a mistake, as well as the chairman of the Seimas Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ž. Pavilionis said that her call was a personal initiative, contradicting the EU’s line, that it was not in line with Germany’s position, and that the US also disapproves of any such contacts.

More diplomatically, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, G. Landsbergis, admitted that the German Chancellor’s conversation with Lukashenko was unexpected and said that he did not understand what could be discussed with the migrant crisis’ instigator, not the solver. Lukashenko does not need to be spoken to in order to feel recognised by the West.

Prime Minister Šimonytė was even more cautious, going so far as to say that she understood Merkel’s concern about the humanitarian crisis on the EU’s borders, but added that she was not surprised that Lukashenko had used her call in a propaganda campaign.

Of course, Lukashenko did not miss a good opportunity to use it for propaganda, but it is aimed at Belarusians. He talked about his vague proposals on how the migrant crisis could be solved. But is Germany already inclined to regard his regime as legitimate? Clearly not, and talking to him does not change anything of substance.

Perhaps Merkel, concerned about the migrants already arriving in Germany via Poland, was trying to push Lukashenko to stop sending them to the EU’s borders, while simultaneously, through dialogue, giving him the opportunity to, as it were, save his political face.

In any case, no practical benefit has been seen so far from Merkel’s conversation. On the contrary, a very large crowd of migrants soon tried to storm the Polish border by force, injuring one officer. Perhaps this is how the Belarusian dictator increases the pressure on the EU to negotiate with him and drop sanctions.

On the Lithuanian border, there are no major changes – the efforts to cross the border are continuing. Still, groups of several dozen people are not attempting to force their way across but are being turned back to Belarus by officials.

This situation seems to be only a temporary freeze of the migrant problem.

Turkey no longer allows the sale of tickets to Minsk to Iraqis and Syrians. This will slow down the flow of new migrants, but the thousands of people already in Belarus are not going anywhere.

Returning them to their countries of origin will be very difficult, even if Lukashenko stops deliberately sending them to the EU’s borders.

It is also impossible to send home the approximately 4 000 migrants already in Lithuania. So, except for one or two, most of them will try to stay and continue pushing on to the West.

Lithuania does not seem to have a plan in place to deal with these people, who cannot be kept indefinitely in closed migrant camps.
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