- Oksana Antonenko
- BBC Russian Service
The Lithuanian authorities have imposed a state of emergency in several regions of the country, fearing a repetition of attempts at their borders for a mass breakthrough of migrants from Belarus to Poland. Fifty kilometers from the epicenter of Europe’s worst migration crisis, people are still struggling at spas and dining in restaurants, with only truck drivers stuck in queues at checkpoints experiencing big problems. However, Vilnius considers the situation to be a serious threat to national security and does not rule out that they will turn to NATO for military assistance.
The Lithuanian city of Druskininkai is located nine kilometers from the Belarusian border, two hours’ drive from Vilnius. It is usually crowded with tourists from Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia and Poland. Spa hotel rooms must be booked here two months in advance, regardless of the season.
It would seem that a few days ago, resort life should have stopped, since Lithuania declared an emergency in a ten-kilometer zone along the border.
Lithuanian security officials report that Belarusian security officials transported part of the migrants from there to the Lithuanian border. About a hundred migrants are moving along the border towards Poland.
But nothing has changed in the resort town. Spa hotels are overcrowded and there are queues at restaurants. They were joined by the military, police and officers from the European border agency Frontex.
Truck drivers suffer
“The police have become much larger, they practically live here,” says local resident Vaidas. “Usually there are three police crews, now about ten. The army also exists.
In the neighboring village of Kapchamestis, there is almost no one on the streets except the military. 15 out of 20 local shops. About one in ten contacts on Tinder (a romantic dating app) is a military man.
However, the strong presence of the security forces does not affect the life of local residents or their movement. Isabella, who came to Kapchamestis from Poland, says that when she crossed the border, she did not feel an emergency, and there was even more war and army in Poland.
“I’m not afraid of the police, they want to protect me. [то есть мигрантов – ред.] and do something, but what? This is the first news on TV – Polish, Russian and American. This is a very difficult situation, we are people, we want to help people. On the other hand, there is a problem with Muslims all over the world, ”says Isabella.
But if it is still quite easy to cross the border between Lithuania and Poland, then it becomes more and more difficult to travel outside the EU. A ten-kilometer queue of trucks lined up on the border between Lithuania and Belarus.
“We’ve been standing for 17 hours, if we move at this pace, then 15 more hours. Usually [для перехода границы требуется] hours 10. At all borders now a complete collapse. Poland closed one crossing, people went through Lithuania. At some checkpoints they stay even longer, for three or four days, here they still move somehow, “says truck driver Viktor.
Ambiguous attitudes towards migrants
Poland closed the Kuznica checkpoint due to the record number of border migrants. And in the border regions of Lithuania, 50 km from the Kuzhnitsa checkpoint and 30 km from Grodno, where, according to media reports, migrants gather before going to the border, people saw them only on TV. And there is no consensus among the locals on how to treat them.
Elena lives on the very border with Belarus. “Druskininkai is a very small city, here even tourists are immediately visible, they [мигрантам – ред.] it’s impossible to hide here. If I see, I’ll call the police, she says. “I don’t understand these young Polish girls who walk through the forest and present food to them, I don’t imagine my daughter doing such a thing.”
“Here in Druskininkai people are discussing the situation. [мигрантов – ред.] do not speak. I have been in Germany for many years, they are people of a different culture, they live differently, “agrees another local resident, Vaidas.
Auris, on the other hand, is ready to help: “Some here are afraid of migrants, but I am not.
Swayunas lives near the border and is also ready to help migrants: “I am not afraid of them. …
Lithuanian political scientist Laurynas Jonavicius believes that the issue of migrants divided the society: “There is an opinion in Lithuania that we should push them aside, because this is a question of our security. It’s a dilemma: people are freezing and this is not good.”
“It was Lukashenka who brought them”
Official Lithuania is not going to change its position and let migrants cross the border, as it was at the beginning of the summer. In June-July, Lithuanian border guards detained more than four thousand people for illegal border crossing. People lacked water, food and basic hygiene products.
At the end of the summer, Lithuania’s tactics changed. Instead of sending migrants to camps, they began to be pushed back to Belarus. As a result, people, including children, had to live in the forest for weeks and months.
“All the messages of the Belarusian propaganda are being made about this: look how badly this people are treated.
The Belarusian authorities believe that the EU countries that accept migrants are to blame for the migration crisis. President Alexander Lukashenko also said that earlier Belarus was a barrier on the way of illegal migrants to the European Union, however, given the imposition of sanctions against the country, she should think about whether to do this further.
Simultaneously with the escalation of the situation on the border with Poland, the Lithuanian media reported that 500 migrants were transferred by the Belarusian security forces to the Lithuanian border. Over the past week, Lithuanian border guards have deployed between 20 and 300 migrants per day.
“If we had not defended our border and started to stop, there would have been more than 50 thousand of them. – We cannot ourselves be subjected to hybrid attacks and new waves of illegal migration.”
Abramavicius did not comment on the situation in Poland, where border guards reported at least seven deaths among migrants, mainly from hypothermia. However, the Lithuanian side is well aware that something similar can happen on their border.
“If they have invited the Belarusian authorities for the purpose of tourism, if they receive Belarusian visas. [туристические] packages, then the Belarusian authorities are fully responsible. There were no deaths on the Lithuanian border, continues Abramavicius. “If someone tries to cross the border, we help with humanitarian packages, but we don’t allow them to cross.”
According to him, Lithuania is going to create pressure at the international level for the problem to be solved at the EU level. He excludes direct dialogue with Alexander Lukashenko or official Moscow. Why talk to those who are showing hybrid aggression against us? “, – concludes Abramavicius.
Lithuania is waiting for war?
Political analyst Laurynas Jonavicius believes that negotiations are Lukashenka’s goal. “He wants legitimacy, he created this problem in order to be talked to, he wants to show that he is important and needed, and all these election problems are not so important.” … And we cannot cause this, “he said.
According to him, Lukashenka does not want war, but he will do anything to destabilize the situation and deepen the crisis. This means that the scenario of a military conflict cannot be ruled out. “If you listen to his rhetoric, he says that he will constantly be provocations from the Lithuanian and Polish sides, which basically means that he will create these provocations himself, and then blame Poland and Lithuania,” added Jonavicius.
The threat of an armed confrontation was previously also officially announced by Poland and the Foreign Ministries of the three Baltic countries.
“We must do everything possible to prevent this from escalating into a military conflict, we need the participation of different countries and organizations to resolve it peacefully,” Arnoldas Abromavicius believes.
According to him, Lithuania can ask for help from NATO partners, including the military. The first step would be to request consultations, but the Lithuanian authorities have not yet decided on this challenge. Poland and Latvia are also considering the possibility of applying to NATO. “This hybridity poses a lot of problems,” says Jonavicius. “It is not clear where there is already aggression, and where there is only provocation.”
The emergency situation introduced in some regions of Lithuania covers not only the border zone. The authorities also fear an escalation in the places of residence of migrants. In four of the five Lithuanian centers for the accommodation of foreigners, riots broke out at exactly the same time as the escalation began on the Polish border.
In theory, this means that migrants who are in the center should lose their mobile communications. The head of one of such centers in the Lithuanian city of Pabrade, Aleksandras Kislovas, told the BBC Russian Service that those who were detained by the court do not have telephones, and that the rest of the camp management is not going to deny communications.
“They use communication, 100 people have private lawyers, they need to agree on procedural issues.
Since the beginning of emergency situations, migrants have been allowed to meet only with close relatives of NGOs and lawyers. That is, they cannot communicate with journalists.
According to Kislovas, living conditions in the camp have improved markedly. In the summer, people lived in multi-storey buildings and tents, and now the tents have been replaced with container houses. There are five sectors here; each of them is designed for 150 people, all sectors have their own gyms, bathrooms, showers and hot water.
Now 28 people have the right to leave the territory, in the summer about 300 were allowed. 280 people used the right to leave the camp and did not return. According to the Lithuanian border guards, a total of several hundred migrants fled from the Lithuanian resettlement centers.