Lithuania accuses Belarus of using migrants in ‘hybrid’ response to sanctions

Baltic state blames angry Minsk for migrant surge amid fallout from Ryanair incident

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko,  who said of the West’s reaction to the Ryanair incident: ‘We’ve been stopping drugs and migrants – now you will take them and catch them yourselves.’ Photograph:  Dmitry Astakhov/AFP via Getty Images

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, who said of the West’s reaction to the Ryanair incident: ‘We’ve been stopping drugs and migrants – now you will take them and catch them yourselves.’ Photograph: Dmitry Astakhov/AFP via Getty Images

 

Lithuania has accused neighbouring Belarus of helping migrants illegally cross its border to punish it for denouncing Minsk’s crackdown on political dissent and diversion of a Ryanair plane so that an activist could be arrested.

The Baltic state says it has stopped 387 migrants at the Belarusian border already this year – most of them from the Middle East – which is almost five times the number of people who were caught covertly crossing the frontier during the whole of 2020.

The EU and Nato member has been a vocal critic of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko and has provided sanctuary to some of his most prominent opponents, including opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

The government in Vilnius has also been a strong supporter of western sanctions imposed against Mr Lukashenko’s regime, including those aimed at the Belarusian aviation sector following the diversion of a May 23rd Ryanair flight to Minsk airport, where police arrested activist and journalist Roman Protasevich.

Three days after the incident, Mr Lukashenko said when denouncing the West’s reaction: “We’ve been stopping drugs and migrants – now you will take them and catch them yourselves.”

Border situation

Lithuanian interior minister Agne Bilotaite said on Tuesday that the border situation was “under control” but the government would devote more funds to guarding the frontier and hoped for EU financial and expert assistance on the issue.

“We simply have an unstable neighbour who is using what I would call a tool of hybrid war – that is, he is trying to manipulate us through illegal migration,” she claimed.

Ms Bilotaite told her country’s Delfi news outlet that Mr Lukashenko, Belarus’s hard-line ruler of 27 years, had turned his country of 9.5 million into “one huge prison” from which it was difficult for opponents of his regime to escape.

“It is easy [to leave] only for people from Iraq and Syria, because there are apparently Belarusian officials involved, there are certain organised schemes” to help them reach Lithuania, she said, echoing fellow ministers who say the Belarusian state is playing a role in helping migrants fly into Minsk from Baghdad and Istanbul and then continue west to the border.

‘Completely false’

Senior Belarusian border security official Andrei Filatov dismissed such claims as “completely false”.

“The border agencies fulfil all their obligations . . . and protect the border professionally,” he told Belarusian state news agency Belta.

Lithuanian defence minster Arvydas Anusauskas has described the rise in arriving migrants as “an asymmetric response of Belarus to EU sanctions” and compared it to a similar surge in people trying to enter Norway and Finland from Russia in 2015-16.

“Russia and Belarus use the same methods and principles,” he said of two allies whose autocratic leaders have drawn closer since huge pro-democracy protests rocked Mr Lukashenko’s regime last year following deeply flawed presidential elections.