At the Edge of the EU
Just over a year ago I was in eastern Poland. Having spent the morning at two Tatar mosques – relics of the region’s former diversity – I drove to a sleepy settlement called Krynki. Once a hub of Polish Jewry, it became a ghetto under the Nazis, and the only tangible evidence that Jews ever lived there is an overgrown cemetery, surrounded by fields. As I wandered among the crumbling 18th-century tombstones, my phone buzzed with a text message. ‘Welcome to Belarus,’ it said. ‘While you’re here, calls will cost £1.80 a minute to make and receive.’
Back in my car I headed to the nearby border crossing, ignoring a no-entry sign. The edge of the European Union – a strip of sand between two rickety gates – was quiet, and though my traffic violation didn’t go unnoticed, the Polish guards whose jeep caught up with me were relaxed. As they conducted their online checks, I thought I should mention that I sometimes wrote about politics. They looked baffled. Their problem was my driving, not my writing.
That will have changed. A threat last June by Alexander Lukashenko to facilitate emigration to the European Union has turned backwaters like Krynki into flashpoints, and a state of emergency now keeps journalists three kilometres from the border. Earlier this month, thousands of Arabs, Asians and Africans, with blankets and bolt cutters, confronted at least 15,000 Polish troops. According to Poland’s border agency, there have been more than thirty thousand clashes since August.
Since the middle of this month, when Angela Merkel telephoned Lukashenko twice to propose that the EU and UN facilitate humanitarian assistance, tensions have been easing. The rhetoric on both sides is polarised, however, and it’s still echoing loudly. In Poland, xenophobes and opponents of the Belarusian dictatorship were warning just two weeks ago of an imminent immigrant invasion. Apologists for Lukashenko audaciously complained that the very crisis he had brought about was enriching people-smugglers and facilitating genocide. When Polish officials floated the possibility of sealing the eastern border completely, Lukashenko threatened to block the pipelines carrying Russian gas westwards, and announced that Russian planes capable of carrying nuclear bombs were patrolling his country’s frontiers.
While Poland and Belarus have focused on violations of national sovereignty, the Kremlin takes a different perspective. Its seizure of Crimea in 2014 has made other countries in the region nervous of its ambitions, quite understandably, but Putin’s primary concern isn’t territorial expansion, or the defence of Belarusian borders. He seeks strategic depth, not direct control over new territories. He’s happy therefore to let Lukashenko squabble with the neighbours over strips of sand. Just as simmering instability in eastern Ukraine is keeping Kjiv on the back foot, a wobbly Minsk suits him fine. The last thing Putin wants is a regional rival who’s stable and secure.
Poland, meanwhile, is the perfect adversary for both Moscow and Minsk. The other week, Putin’s spokesman disingenuously regretted that the EU’s stance over the border crisis was a betrayal of its values, and the Law and Justice Party government in Warsaw could hardly be a more divisive standard bearer for those values. As well as subverting media and judicial independence, it has stoked visceral racism: at a press briefing on 27 September, extraordinary even by Law and Justice standards, two senior ministers falsely claimed that a detained refugee had had sex with a horse, and displayed screenshots from a porn video as evidence. The normalisation of antisemitism also seems to be accelerating. The organiser of Wrocław’s Independence Day procession on 11 November was a defrocked priest, convicted in September of inciting antisemitic hatred for demanding that synagogues be torn down. The festivities in Kalisz ended with angry men in fatigues burning a 13th-century edict that promised toleration for Jews.
The fear of outsiders isn’t putting liberal values under pressure only at the EU’s eastern fringes, of course. In the UK, Boris Johnson has been even more vocal than the Law and Justice Party about the value of sovereignty, and the need to take back control of national borders. Now that cross-channel migration is increasing nonetheless, he’s pleading for Europe’s assistance – and that irony isn’t about to resolve itself smoothly. Many more migrants will suffer and die because his government treats international collaboration as an imposition to be tolerated, not a goal to be valued.
The only glimmer of hope, fourteen months on from my trip to Krynki, is that alternative perspectives survive. In Poland itself, every major city is run by a progressive administration, under mayors who are proud of their tolerance. In Belarus, by contrast, Lukashenko’s record is unequivocally regressive. In 2020, his dictatorship processed a grand total of 562 asylum applications, and granted fifteen. And though his state media have been alleging genocide against the European Union, only one refugee’s suffering has been given detailed press coverage. Evan Neumann’s supposed fear of persecution and torture was given a nationwide TV segment on 7 November. He is a US citizen, fleeing serious charges linked to the attempted insurrection at Washington DC on 6 January.