Editor’s Note: Linas Kojala is the director of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, a think tank in Vilnius, Lithuania, and a lecturer at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In recent years, Europe’s migration troubles have entailed people arriving from the south and east, fleeing conflict and economic deprivation over land routes and in boats often unfit for Mediterranean waters.
But its newest “crisis” is being felt on a different front: European Union member state Lithuania, where in late July the government said more than 2,400 people had crossed illegally in the two months prior.
Their transit point, before they enter the EU: Belarus.
This latest migration spike has apparently been abetted by the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – an authoritarian known as Europe’s last dictator who is in the midst of a crackdown on dissidents in his own country after a disputed election last August. As the West issues sanctions and criticism in response to Belarus’s authoritarian crackdown and widespread arrests, it seems Lukashenko is seeking to undermine Europe by using migration as a political weapon.
This is a hard lesson for other democracies that might face the same struggle in the future.
Lithuania’s population of less than 3 million is roughly the same size as the US state of Kansas. It is among the smaller member states of the EU, yet it is one of the hotspots of Europe. The reason – Lithuania’s neighbor, Belarus, and its pariah regime.
Lithuania is among those pushing for broader EU economic sanctions against Belarus for alleged human rights violations. It would appear that Lukashenko is registering his displeasure – and seeking to undermine the sanctions push – through migration. The number of illegal crossings from Belarus to Lithuania during the first seven-and-a-half months of 2021 is around 55 times higher than throughout 2020.
Iraqis, Congolese, Cameroonians and others stream into the EU, seeing Lithuania as a new gateway to Western countries. The German publication Der Spiegel reported this month that many travel to Belarus with tourist visas, while a Belarusian state-owned company may have played a part in encouraging further travel to the EU. (The company denied that it does so.) In some cases, migrants detained in Lithuania even report being “pushed” forcefully to cross the border to Lithuania by Belarusians.
It is no coincidence. Lukashenko himself publicly threatened in May to flood the EU with “migrants and drugs.” Now, Belarus seems at best to be tolerating illegal crossings of Lithuania’s border – or at worst, actively encouraging them to do so. That is the consensus of the 27 EU member states that call the actions of Belarus “a direct attack aimed at destabilizing and pressurising the EU.” (Lukashenko has denied the accusation, saying there is no evidence Belarus encourages illegal migration, Belarusian state media reported.) Belarusian officials told CNN and other outlets that migrants came to Belarus as tourists, border guards were busy preventing criminal activity, and accused Lithuania of illegally bringing asylum seekers to the border and pushing them out of EU territory.
The situation on the ground remains tense, however, as the Lithuanian government says Belarusian border guards have been caught taking down barbed wire and trying to disguise the footprints of illegal crossers. Reports from Lithuanian state media have highlighted the problem.
In response, Lithuania recently began turning back some migrants illegally attempting to enter the country – and for others already in Lithuania, offering cash incentives to leave, Lithuanian state media reported. While many still try, the number of people who successfully crossed the border decreased sharply in recent days. It is no surprise the alternative routes to the EU via Latvia and Poland now gain more traction.
For Lukashenko, the ultimate goal seems to be punishing and attempting to coerce the EU. In response, the EU commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson says Lukashenko is “using human beings in an act of aggression.”
The EU sent 100 European border officers to Lithuania to help cope with the influx. Furthermore, at least 12 EU countries delivered tents, beds and generators. Yet, Lithuania could still be overwhelmed. The uncontrolled stream of people poses a political, legal and logistical challenge. It is unclear how many more people might try to cross the border in the coming months. Furthermore, the crossings have preceded the Belarusian-Russian quadrennial “Zapad” (or Western) military exercise in the neighborhood that puts NATO on its toes.
So what are the lessons from the crisis?
First, Lithuania should have been better prepared, as should any democracy neighboring an authoritarian regime. After all, Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and has never sought to accommodate Western values. Moreover, his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is known for employing various tools of hybrid aggression, including migration.
Unfortunately, out of almost 420 miles of Lithuanian border with Belarus, video surveillance cameras were used to monitor only 38 percent of its length prior to the crisis. A barrier is now being built to cover the entire length of the border.
Second, this is not a threat only to Lithuania – it is a threat to the whole EU. Any person inside the EU’s Schengen Area can travel with relative freedom, and the final target country for migrants is often Germany. However, while the crisis of 2015-2016 posed serious challenges for the project of a united Europe, the EU still has not enacted comprehensive reform to its immigration policies.
Hence, the issue on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border is a microcosm of a trouble that could again threaten other parts of Europe and cause tensions within the bloc.
The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan and other geopolitical shifts around the world point to more migration into Europe, not less. The UN Office on Humanitarian Affairs estimated that 500,000 people would be displaced by conflict this year, and 18.5 million could need humanitarian assistance, with drought and the departure of international troops contributing to that figure. Climate change and severe weather threaten to prompt more migration in the years and decades to come.
For many of those seeking a way out of dangerous and deprived circumstances, Europe is the preferred destination.
We can only assume that authoritarian regimes are following each other’s attempts to undermine democracies. If weaponized migration proves to be effective, it will certainly be attempted again. Such efforts might significantly undermine the security landscape of NATO’s Eastern frontier.
While weaponized migration looms larger for Europe, the United States should pay attention for its own reasons. It needs Europe to remain stable if America is to redirect its strategic attention to the Indo-Pacific, rather than toward putting out geopolitical fires elsewhere.
The more migration is weaponized by authoritarian countries like Belarus, the bigger the headaches for the democracies they seek to undermine. When it comes to Lukashenko, the EU must find a way to respond – and soon.