Belarus moves to de-escalate border crisis in diplomatic push
Belarus moved toward de-escalating a crisis on the European Union’s eastern frontier, providing shelter for some of the migrants stuck on its border and pushing for a diplomatic solution with the continent’s heavyweight Germany.
Faced with a prospect of new sanctions and accusations of waging a “hybrid attack” on the EU, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko spoke with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a second time this week on Wednesday, a day after the most violent clashes to date on the border with Poland.
State news agency Belta said the pair “came to a certain understanding of how to proceed further in solving the existing issues” and to “immediately” start EU-Belarus talks. Germany’s readout from the call was more cautious.
“The Chancellor underscored the need to ensure humanitarian care and the opportunity to return for those affected,” according to a German government statement. She seeks to resolve the crisis with help from the United Nations and “in cooperation with the European Commission.”
More than 1,000 migrants, mostly from the Middle East, spent the night in a Belarusian warehouse near the Kuznica border crossing, instead of in makeshift camps scattered along the country’s EU frontier as has been the case for months.
Hours earlier, nine Polish soldiers were hurt by rocks and other projectiles, including stun grenades, thrown across the border. Polish forces used water cannon as well as tear gas to repel migrants storming the crossing and registered 161 attempts of illegal entry from Belarus overnight, the border service said Wednesday.
The conflict, which has been brewing since Belarusian forces started ushering migrants to EU borders, has threatened to turn into a military struggle with the build up of fortifications and troop numbers at the frontiers, as well as a humanitarian disaster with autumn temperatures drop below freezing.
Some 7,000 migrants are in Belarus with plans to enter the EU, according to Polish government estimates. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Tuesday that his country was “tightening” its migration regime as the bloc started to pressure Middle Eastern nations to curb flights to Belarus.
Poland’s Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak warned on Wednesday that his country had to be prepared for the Belarus standoff to last “months, I hope not years.” The country has deployed roughly 15,000 troops, border guards and police to the frontier, which it cordoned off from the media and human-rights groups.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko discussed “paths to resolving the crisis” and called for the start of direct talks between the EU and Minsk. Such an idea may not sit well with Belarus’s neighbors who have been most affected by the migrant crisis.
Polish President Andrzej Duda told his German counterpart on Wednesday that his country “wouldn’t recognize any arrangements regarding the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border that would be made over our heads.”
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the EU should remain skeptical of the Belarusian leader’s intentions. He warned that Lukashenko may be seeing the standoff as a way to regain his international legitimacy following last year’s contested president election in Belarus and the ensuing brutal crackdown on protesters and the opposition in the country he has led since 1994.
“Lukashenko might start thinking that he’s becoming a West-recognized leader – as one who can resolve the crisis, despite being the one who caused it,” Landsbergis said. Negotiations with him are “the most dangerous thing” the EU can do, he said.
Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets called for the EU to remain united in its values, saying Lukashenko wants to stop sanctions and seeks recognition. The EU, jointly with the U.S. and possibly the U.K., may announce another round of penalties against Belarus early next month.
The situation at the border, meanwhile, remains tense with temperatures dropping and 2,000 migrants gathered along the forest frontier with Poland and a further 1,500 near Lithuania, according to estimates by the two EU nation governments.
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