Lukashenko threatens EU gas as sanctions loom over migrant crisis

Belarus president calls Poland border crisis he is accused of causing a ‘complete catastrophe’

Migrants in Minsk, Belarus on Wednesday. Photograph: The New York Times

Migrants in Minsk, Belarus on Wednesday. Photograph: The New York Times

 

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has threatened to block Russian gas deliveries to Europe this winter if the EU steps up sanctions against Minsk over the growing migrant crisis on its eastern frontier.

As EU officials struggle to find a diplomatic solution to a growing geopolitical conflict, thousands of people remain trapped between Poland and Belarus in desperate conditions.

The Polish government in Warsaw is determined to press ahead with a fence of high razor wire along its 400km border with Belarus, with Brussels co-funding the €350 million cost.

In Minsk, Mr Lukashenko described as a “complete catastrophe” the crisis on the border with Poland that EU leaders accuse him of causing.

EU leaders says the president has instrumentalised migrants by luring them to Minsk and corralling them at the border. He denies all suggestions he is retaliating against sanctions the EU imposed over his government’s detention and torture of opposition figures.

News of the proposed border fence and fresh EU sanctions prompted Mr Lukashenko to bring into play the Russian gas that runs through his country to Europe.

“We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said. “And what if we halt natural gas supplies? I would recommend that the Polish leadership, Lithuanians and [others] think before speaking.”

The threat comes amid growing fears in the EU about energy supply and cost in the coming winter months.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has already flagged the prospect of higher prices unless Germany issues an operation permit for Nordstream 2, an undersea gas pipeline.

EU economics commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said Europe “should not be intimidated” by threats from Minsk and said new restrictions on the country could come as early as Monday.

Former European Council president Donald Tusk, now opposition leader in Warsaw, has urged swift action to support his country and its Baltic neighbours.

“There is no more time or space for hestitation,” he said. “What we need are tough decisions vis-a-vis Minsk.”

Airline sanctions

One new sanction under discussion would hit airlines reportedly ferrying migrants from the Middle East to Minsk, including Belarus state airline Belavia. It was banned from EU airspace and airports after Minsk forced a Ryanair-owned flight to land in Minsk last May, allowing police to arrest a Belarusian dissident blogger on board.

A new round of airline sanctions, diplomats say, would ban EU companies leasing any of their planes to the airline.

On Thursday, Russian state airline Aeroflot denied any involvement in what Germany has called Mr Lukashenko’s “state-sponsored people trafficking”.

In Poland, where the tense border stand-off has triggered a surge in patriotic rhetoric, a large independence day march took place in Warsaw on Thursday despite a court ban.

As in previous years, far-right groups co-opted celebrations to march through the capital chanting “Pure Poland! Refugees out!”

By late afternoon large crowds bearing red-and-white flags gathered outside Warsaw’s national stadium, holding red flares against growing gloom.

Riding a wave of patriotic feeling during the crisis, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government was accused by opposition politicians of giving its tacit approval to Thursday’s march. They said PiS carried moral responsibility for “every fight, every instance of arson”.

Given the tense border standoff, Warsaw’s liberal mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said he hoped for the best but feared the worst. On television he said the Polish capital was “no place to propagate slogans that have all the hallmarks of fascism”.