On August 18th, Lithuania closed two border-crossing points on the border with Belarus. At that time, there were three main issues that affected this decision:
- Increased flow of Belarusian migrants and growth of the Belarusian diaspora.
- Danger of Litvinism ideology, especially in the context of Russian informational influence.
- The presence of Wagner troops combined with their unclear goals.
Although the last point has mostly lost its relevance, the other two are still significant and continue to impact Lithuanian border policy.
From January 2023 to July 2023, around 20,000 residence permits were issued to Belarusian citizens. The total number of people in the Belarusian diaspora is around 60,000, not considering those who visit Lithuania temporarily or don’t have any legal status there. Such an increase in diaspora exerts a lot of pressure on the Lithuanian state from several points.
First of all, the increased number of Belarusians crossing the Belarusian-Lithuanian border makes it easier to smuggle illegal commodities. The pressure on customs is increasing meaning that to thoroughly check every individual who crosses the border is not possible. In turn, this increases the risk of contraband. Additionally, border guards don’t have enough time to check people whether they present a danger to Lithuania’s national security. Overall, increased flow of people decreased the quality of controlling measures. To address these issues, two border-crossing points were closed, so that staff from there can be redistributed to busier border-crossings.
Social tensions — too many strange people
In addition, there is a risk from the diaspora itself. This problem has many shades; the darkest one is that Belarusians can simply be recruited by Belarusian secret services to act on Lithuanian territory.; Therefore there is much more attention to Belarusian citizens. Additionally, Belarusians are mostly Russian-speaking, which causes two main issues: social tensions and questionable political alignment.
First, the influx of Belarusian and Ukrainian migrants increased the presence of the Russian language. In Vilnius, currently there are around 100,000 – 150,000 new Russian-speaking people (for reference: the official population of Vilnius is 544,000 people). Such presence both harms the status of the Lithuanian language and causes noticeable irritation among locals. Politicians, especially nationalist-leaning ones, such as current president Gitanas Nausėda, try to use these tensions to increase popularity, and call for restrictive measures to Belarusians.
Secondly, Russian-speaking Belarusian are considered to be naturally more pro-Russian due to higher exposure to Russian propaganda and actions of the Belarusian government. Therefore, to prevent possible Kremlin-backed actions, controlling measures towards Belarusians are implemented. This situation worsened after publications about possible cooperation between Russian secret services and Olga Karach – Belarusian activist – as well as about Pavel Daneyko’s – Belarusian economist, activist, and analyst – actions and words.
In some cases, they can become apparently harmful. For example, the decision not to give residence permits to those who served in the Belarusian army on a contract basis potentially deprived Lithuania of a precious and educated workforce that would otherwise be highly beneficial both for the country’s society and economy. In addition, focusing on Russian-leaning Belarusians as an existential threat to Lithuania, the state ignores the fact that there are numerous Lithuanian citizens who support Russia, and could present an equal danger to Lithuania. As for Belarusians, the best option is to verify every person separately so that democratic Belarusians won’t be accused of cooperation with Russia or won’t be declared a national threat.
In addition, there is a visible amount of suspicion towards those Belarusians that came to Lithuania after 2020-2021. This group, in contrast with its predecessors, is considered to be economic migrants, since democratic activists apparently left the country before 2021. As a result, there is a tendency to try to separate “good” old Belarusians from “suspicious” Russians and Belarusians that came after the war began. However, it is worth noting that the degree of repression in Belarus is still high and people are still leaving the country for political reasons. Hence, the current flow of Belarusians cannot be seen as purely economic.
Another problem with the number of Belarusians in Lithuania is connected to bureaucracy. Due to an increased number of applications for residence permit and refugee status from Belarusians, Lithuanian services are overwhelmed, which is expected to be worsened by the latest decree of Lukashenka that bans the possibility to receive a passport in an embassy.
Litvinism and its implications
In Lithuania, Litvinism is seen as a radical branch of Belarusian nationalism which states that modern Belarusians are the only descendants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and claims a part of Lithuanian territory to be inherently Belarusian, with the country’s capital Vilnius. The last part disturbs Lithuanians the most, who are concerned about their country’s sovereignty and security. These emotions are harnessed by conservative-leaning Lithuanian politicians, who suggest that a lot of Belarusian pro-democratic activists and political leaders, who currently resign in Lithuania, are actually supporting Litvinism. Therefore, a dangerous question arises – which is better: Belarus under Lukashenka or Belarus under the rule of nationalists?
Litvinism as it is imagined is indeed a concern, but in reality it is a marginal ideology that doesn’t have public support, especially in such radical forms. In fact, the fear of Litvinism is typically used as a tool to divide Belarusian and Lithuanians: nameless accounts can come to Lithuanian groups in social media and spread the ideas of Litvinism there. It possibly can be the actions of Russian or Belarusian secret services intended to weaken the Belarusian democratic movement.
However, despite extremes from both sides being presented to drive fear, many Belarusians continue to consider Lithuanian history as a ‘shared’ history. Both nations have rights to it, and interpret these in different ways, each holding equal value.
It is also worthwhile noting that, to date, there have been no publicly supported disputes about claiming Lithuanian territories by Belarusians.
When to close the border and how to co-exist with Belarusian opposition
As of publication, there are no ongoing talks concerning closing the Belarusian border by the Lithuanian side, further to the recent closures. However, it was declared that two case could result in Lithuania choosing to isolate Belarus: : armed incidents and the outbreak of illegal migration. While the former is not current anymore, the latter can still become an important issue to influence the officials’ decision.
As for the Belarusian opposition in Lithuania, their two-year-long honeymoon with Lithuanian authorities seems to be coming to its end. Current tensions in Lithuanian society lead to problems in relations. However, thoughtful partnership, discussion of common goals and motivations, as well as openness in actions can help to keep the relationships between Belarusian democrats and Lithuanian authorities positive.
The Polish approach to the Belarusian situation was established in the 1950s, when Jerzy Giedroyć published his article ULB (Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus) in the Polish emigration magazine Kultura (culture). There, he stressed the importance of independence of Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus for Polish independence as well as correlated establishing democracy in Poland with democratic transition in those three countries.
Even after the current ruling party, Rule and Justice, came to power in Poland, this doctrine didn’t change, though the motivation to implement it became more nationalistic. Rule and Justice even tried to negotiate with Lukashenka before 2020.
In addition, Poland’s parliamentary elections are imminent and planned to be conducted on October 15th. This event determines all political life in the country, including the attitude towards the Belarusian situation. It is worth keeping in mind this perspective.
The situation on the border of Belarus and Poland is similar to the one on the Lithuania-Belarusian border. There is an established illegal migration route, which is considerably safer than those in Southern Europe, since it doesn’t involve crossing big bodies of water and goes straight to Germany. Due to this, the problem of illegal migration is unlikely to go away anytime soon, especially considering the support of this issue from Lukashenka.
To prevent illegal crossing of the border, Polish authorities commanded to build a protective fence on the border and to involve more forces in patrolling the area. Currently, border control personnel, armed forces, and police combine their forces to prevent breakthroughs.
Oftentimes, border protection is accompanied by human rights violations. This topic is heavily used by political opposition and civil society representatives, who criticize current authorities’ actions in this domain, claiming that they are unconstitutional and against current laws. To represent the issue, a famous Polish director created a film named “Green Border” that describes the current situation. Even though the work isn’t available yet, its existence already causes plenty of controversy in Polish society and politics. Representatives of the ruling party suggest that the film is sponsored by Belarusian secret forces.
The issue of ways of border protection became so important that in the referendum, that will take place at the same time as the elections, people will be able to vote in favor or against leaving the defensive fence.
Danger of Wagner
The hazard that Wagner can cause is taken seriously in Polish politics, especially after Lukashenka’s statements that the mercenaries want to “make an excursion to Warsaw and Rzeszów”. While the group itself seems to leave Belarus, its future is still unclear, and thus should be closely monitored.
In fact, the Wagner group has a palpable effect on the Polish economy and society. Border closures, partly motivated by the influx of migrants, separating many Polish families whose relatives live in Belarus. In addition, public spreading of the information of possible Wagner’s aggression significantly decreased the profitability of agro-tourism in Eastern Poland, where people were cancelling reservations fearing the mercenaries’ invasion. This, combined with constant surveillance, had a palpable impact on the local’s health and security.
Close or not to close?
Currently, there are only two operational border crossings at the Polish-Belarusian border. If they are closed, countless people connected to trade and transport infrastructure will lose their jobs, let alone the implications on tourism. The Belarusian question became highly important in current electoral events. However, the same heated electoral debates can lead to unplanned decisions which would harm all sides. Hence, it is critical to analyze possible scenarios and think thoroughly about their consequences.
Unfortunately, the Belarusian people are still under severe repressions. Now, Lukashenka’s forces hunt those who donated supporting democratic initiatives. Police “propose” donating a certain amount of money to state-ruled charities to dismiss criminal cases, though there is no guarantee that such an action would protect a person from prison.
With this in mind, crossing borders and fleeing the country becomes more and more risky. In fact, current visa restrictions prevent many people from leaving, while long lines on existing border crossings don’t allow people to flee the country quickly.
One of the proposed approaches in case the borders are closed is to leave certain humanitarian corridors for those affected by repressions. However, such a method has an obvious problem: when a person goes to this corridor, it becomes obvious to Belarusian police that this person is an “enemy.” As a result, they should be arrested. Therefore, humanitarian corridors aren’t a reliable solution.
Surely, there are other ways to evacuate people from Belarus, but simple border crossing should remain.
No more passports for diaspora
Consular ban on Belarusian diasporas cut the possibility to receive passports abroad: now Belarusian citizens have to return to the country to renew or update their passport. This move falls into the logic of the Belarusian regime, according to which every immigrant is an enemy and should be cut from the amenities that the state provides to its loyal citizens. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the consequences of this decision.
This ban is a big challenge for Poland and Lithuania as primary hosts of Belarusian immigration. Now, those who reside in the countries will have to make a foreign travel document. While political activists can usually receive it with refugee status, which already entails numerous restrictions and requirements. For others, it can be an issue. Typically, these people come to the EU as economic immigrants, where they participate in Belarusian rallies and donate to support Belarusian democratic forces. Those actions prevent them from returning to Belarus. Now, due to the problems with documents, those people will have to change their status to that of refugees. Not only host countries’ bureaucracy, but also civil society structures, should be prepared to receive an influx of applications to verify each case under the relevant criteria. This increases the strain on these bodies and compounds the effect already felt from the Ukrainian refugees.
Western democracies and Belarusian opposition
Despite all the debates, one thing is certain: western politicians support the Belarusian democratic movement. However, sometimes it is difficult to transform this support into concrete actions. In the current anomalous situation, democracies should learn how to react swiftly to protect human rights in a changing world.
Photo: State Border Guard Service (Lithuania)