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Belarus increasingly isolated as tensions rise at EU border

Rosie Birchard in Brussels
August 22, 2023

EU countries neighboring Belarus are ramping up border security, citing threats posed by Wagner mercenaries. That leaves Minsk even more isolated.

Litauen Sumskas Grenzübergang Belarus
Lithuania is among the European Union countries tightening security along its border with BelarusImage: Petras Malukas/AFP

Landlocked Belarus is losing more access to its western neighbors. Since the start of the month, Poland has sent more troops toward its border with the country and Lithuania has shut down two of its six crossing points with Belarus. Latvia is also considering border closures: One official told DW that "active consultations" are taking place, with a decision planned later this month.

The three European Union members bordering Belarus say they're responding to the reported presence of Wagner mercenaries on Belarusian territory, after the private Russian military group's fleeting and ill-fated June rebellion.

"This decision is one of the preventive measures aimed at managing emerging threats national security and possible provocations at the border," Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said last week in statement announcing the temporary closures. "It will enable border officers to redistribute their capacities at the border with Belarus and even larger attention to the protection of the state border."

Minsk's close ties to Moscow and its move to welcome Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin may have deepened divisions, but Belarus has long been at the center of an uncomfortable geography: To the West are the EU and the western military alliance NATO; to the East and South are Russia, Ukraine and all-out war.

"Our neighborhood is complicated," Lithuanian lawmaker Rasa Jukneviciene told DW.

What's behind Lithuania's Belarus border closures?

The Belarusian border guard has slammed Lithuania's border closures as "unconstructive and unfriendly." In a social media post last week, the agency accused Vilnius of "deliberately creating artificial barriers at the border in favor of its political ambitions" and using "any excuse" to prevent Lithuanian citizens from traveling to Belarus.

Jukneviciene — an EU parliamentarian for the governing coalition party Homeland Union — acknowledges that crossings from Lithuania into Belarus are a concern.

Last year, Minsk began offering visa-free travel for Lithuanians, Latvians and Poles. The politician says there are now fears that Belarus, seen as aiding and abetting Russia in its war against Ukraine, may try to recruit travelers for espionage. "Everywhere on the border control there are Belarusian KGB officers. They are questioning and they are trying to attract them for spying," she said.

Vilnius says it hopes the new closures will also limit cross-border smuggling of illicit goods by redirecting traffic to a better-equipped checkpoint.

The European Commission gave no opinion on Lithuania's move to close two crossings, but told DW in written comments that it is "following developments at the EU external borders with Russia and Belarus very carefully."

Pro-democracy protest for Belarus in Warsaw
Hundreds of people took to the streets of Warsaw in early August to mark three years since presidential elections in Minsk that the EU says were rigged. Image: DW

EU-Belarus ties: A 'downward spiral'

Giselle Bosse, a researcher on EU-Belarus ties at Maastricht University, says the latest tensions are part of a "downward spiral" in relations. They hit an initial low back in 2020, when Brussels accused Minsk of rigging elections and violently cracking down on pro-democracy protests. The bloc quickly slapped a slew of sanctions on Belarusian officials and organizations.

A fresh crisis began in 2021 after a jump in irregular crossings into Poland and Lithuania, when the bloc accused Belarusian authorities of luring mainly Middle Eastern migrants toward EU borders and helping them enter illegally. Brussels branded the move a "cynical instrumentalization of migrants" designed to pile political pressure on the bloc.

Polish and Lithuanian border forces have since faced heavy criticism from human rights campaigners over their treatment of migrants trying to cross from Belarus.

"I have received consistent worrying reports of patterns of violence and other human rights violations committed against migrants, including in the context of pushbacks at Lithuania's border with Belarus," the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement earlier this year.

EU migrants at the Polish border

History of 'hybrid attacks' on EU-Belarus border

A European Commission official told DW that EU member state border guards are "obliged to ensure effective access to international protection." But Bosse thinks Brussels could have done more to prevent abuses.

"The geopolitical considerations are serious and must be taken seriously. But how far do you go, that then on the borders we are at the stage where we breach fundamental human rights?" she said.

Like many fellow parliamentarians, Rasa Jukneviciene backs tough border controls and warns Wagner mercenaries could use some of the same border-related tactics authorities have used in the past. "Provocations are possible. They can be used together with migrant groups — to push them, to pretend, to be inside the groups of migrants together and to organize them better to cross illegally the border," she said. A DW fact check found no evidence for previous claims online that Wagner mercenaries are already posing as migrants to enter Poland. 

Cars queue at a Lithuanian border crossing into Belarus
Lithuania has shut two of its six border crossings with neighboring BelarusImage: Petras Malukas/AFP

Belarusians face fewer exit options

The mounting tensions mean it's becoming more difficult for ordinary Belarusians to leave the country. In addition to the shrinking EU exit routes, border crossings into Ukraine are closed in light off Russia's ongoing aggression, and some fear the human impact of restrictions is too high.

The leader of Lithuania's opposition Labor Party, Andrius Mazuronis, told broadcaster LRT that border closures would have a negative economic impact and cause difficulties for the Belarusian democratic opposition and dissidents who now call Lithuania home.

Pro-democracy activists who fled 2020 crackdown are facing fresh challenges. Amid fears that Belarusian secret services may be infiltrating the diaspora, Latvia last year began restricting Belarusian citizens ability to take on influential roles in companies deemed important for national security. Earlier this year, Lithuania restricted visa and citizenship applications for Belarusians and Russians.

But parliamentarian Juckneviciene says humanitarian visa options remain open and insists her country continues to offer crucial support to Belarusians. Since the crackdown on protests in 2020, the EU has become home to tens of thousands of Belarusian exiles, many of whom fled to Lithuania and Poland.

Belarus pro-democracy protesters
Many Belarusian dissidents now call the EU homeImage: Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto/picture alliance

EU pledges to 'stand with' Belarusians in path to democracy

Though the EU imposed some bloc-wide visa restrictions on Belarus after the 2020 clamp-down, a European Commission spokesperson told DW they target "specific categories of officials linked to the regime" in Minsk and do not affect ordinary citizens of Belarus. Brussels says it has kept up its support to Belarusian political prisoners and their families, human rights defenders, independent media and businesses in exile.

"The EU will stand with Belarusians as long as it takes on their path to an independent, democratic, and prosperous country," the European Commission spokesperson said.

Still, researcher Bosse sees no easing of EU-Belarus tensions on horizon. With Polish elections looming and the war in Ukraine raging on, she thinks the debate around borders will likely become more heated.

"Certainly I don't see deescalation. What worries me are these escalations: It's these provocations by Russia also via Belarus in an increasingly tense, nervous security environment."

Edited by: Emily Schultheis