By Robyn Dixon,
Kacper Pempel Reuters
MOSCOW — Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko said he had de-escalated a months-long migrant crisis on the Polish border in a call Friday morning with his closest supporter, President Vladimir Putin, according to the Kremlin press service.
But Poland disagreed, warning Friday that it would block rail freight traffic at the Kuznica railway checkpoint starting Sunday unless Belarus took action to stabilize the border, Interfax Belarus reported. The crossing is one of several important rail freight routes via Belarus to Europe.
Belarus’s State Border Committee responded to Poland in a letter Friday, saying that Belarus poses no threat to Polish personnel and outlining measures it has taken to settle the situation, Russia’s Tass news agency reported.
Europe accuses Lukashenko of using migrants to attack and destabilize Europe, charges that Belarusian officials deny. As violence erupted on the border this week, the crisis underscored the risks of conflict between Poland, a NATO member, and Russian ally Belarus.
The crisis has worsened tensions between Europe and Belarus, with clashes earlier in the week when Polish border guards used water cannons to repel stone-throwing migrants trying to break across the border.
The crisis marks Lukashenko’s second major escalation with Europe this year after the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in May to arrest an independent journalist. Both deepened perceptions in European capitals of a reckless, unreliable and worrying neighbor.
But his move to lure migrants to Poland’s border and pressure Europe has won him zero concessions from the bloc, with new sanctions planned.
Lukashenko briefed the Russian leader Friday on “measures taken by Minsk to de-escalate the crisis and to give humanitarian aid to the immigrants,” the Kremlin said, condemning Poland for blocking the entry of migrants.
The first repatriation flight carried some 430 migrants to Iraq on Thursday, according to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. It was the first concrete sign that Lukashenko was willing to ease a crisis that Europe accuses him of orchestrating.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the standoff over the migrants continues and that no solutions have yet been found to end the crisis. He urged European leaders to talk to Lukashenko.
“Of course, communication between Lukashenko and Putin is not enough to find a solution to this crisis,” Peskov said.
Polish authorities accused Belarus on Friday of continuing to incite tensions on the border by pushing large groups of migrants to cross into Poland.
A migrant camp on the border near Bruzgi in Belarus was cleared Thursday, but Poland’s border authority reported two mass efforts — one involving about 500 migrants and the other about 50 — to break across the frontier..
Migrants in the border region have reported being driven back by border guards from both sides and being trapped in freezing conditions in the forest for weeks without food or adequate water as Poland and Belarus traded accusations and blamed each other for the humanitarian crisis.
The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, said Friday the situation on the border was “alarming,” and she called for urgent action to protect the lives of stranded migrants. She accused both sides of forgetting the rights of migrants, following a four-day mission to Poland’s border region with Belarus.
“Although the situation is the result of the reprehensible actions by Belarus, this does not absolve Poland from its human rights obligations,” Mijatovic said.
All remaining migrants have been moved to a “logistics center,” consisting of a warehouse and tents, according to Belarusian authorities.
Putin and Lukashenko condemned Poland over the “unacceptable, harsh actions of the Polish border guards, including the active use of brute force and special means,” according to the Kremlin.
“Today both presidents expressed their deepest concern over the quite aggressive actions of Polish law enforcers and servicemen against these refugees, these migrants,” Peskov said in a phone call with journalists.
At least 12 people have died in the border region of Poland and Belarus in recent weeks, including a 1-year-old Syrian child, the youngest known victim, according to local media reports and Polish aid workers.
The migrant parents of the child had been trapped in the forest between Belarus and Poland for six weeks, desperately trying to reach Europe, the Polish Center for International Aid said. It said the parents were injured when the group picked them up early Thursday. The mother reported that her 1-year-old child had died a month earlier, the center said.
Belarusian authorities have announced plans to repatriate at least 5,000 of the migrants, but they called on Germany to accept 2,000 of them.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on Thursday ruled out taking in the migrants from Belarus. Speaking at a joint news conference in Warsaw with Polish counterpart Mariusz Kaminsky, Seehofer said the migrants need humanitarian assistance but that “we won’t accept them in our countries.”
Isolated and denied European recognition, Lukashenko has been increasingly forced to turn to Russia for support.
Moscow has backed a key Lukashenko objective, demanding that Europe resolve its problems though direct negotiation with the Belarusian leader, who is not recognized by the European Union or United States.
Poland and Lithuania, the nations most impacted by the migrant crisis, were deeply unsettled when German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened a direct line of contact with Lukashenko this week.
Merkel has spoken to Lukashenko twice by phone in recent days, the first European leader to speak to him since he declared victory in a presidential election last year, which Western leaders denounced as fraudulent.
Both Poland and Lithuania have sought assurances from Germany in recent days that the European Union would not bend to Lukashenko’s pressure.
After Lukashenko’s failure to get Europe to take migrants, accept his political legitimacy or ease sanctions, Belarusian and Russian authorities have hailed Merkel’s contact with him as an important step, although the German position that he is not a legitimate leader has not changed.
The European Union has imposed four rounds of sanctions over the election, police violence against protesters and political repression, and the bloc agreed Monday to a fifth round of sanctions targeting those responsible for the migrant crisis.
Peskov said Friday that the only way ahead was further direct negotiations between Europe and Belarus. “It is highly important to continue direct contacts between Lukashenko and E.U. representatives,” the Kremlin spokesman said.
But Lithuanian President Gitanas Navseda compared Merkel’s contacts to negotiating with hijackers, in comments to Lithuanian television Thursday.
“Are hijackers just allowed to shoot passengers? So, we need to talk, because there is a problem created by Lukashenko. And without Lukashenko, it is almost impossible or extremely difficult to solve,” he said.
While Russia has watched complacently for months as Belarus instigated a crisis designed to pressure Europe and intensify divisions, Putin has lately shown some signs of impatience with Lukashenko.
He dismissed Lukashenko’s threat last week to cut Russian gas supplies to Europe via a transit pipeline to Germany through Belarus.
Merkel called U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and António Vitorino, head of the International Organization for Migration, on Friday to discuss the humanitarian crisis on the border.
Lithuania’s State Border Guard Service said Friday it turned away 106 migrants on the border Thursday. It reported sporadic gunfire on the Belarusian side.
Lithuania bore the brunt of the initial crisis in June, with more than 4,200 migrants entering Lithuania before it blocked its border in early August and built a 13-foot-high razor-wire fence. An additional 7,146 migrants have been turned away since then, it said. The flow of migrants has since shifted to the Polish border.