Angry at Lithuania for providing refuge to the Belarusian opposition and for criticizing Minsk’s recent action of forcing a plane to land in Belarus so that the authorities could arrest an opposition activist, the Belarusian government has deployed a new weapon of “hybrid war” against that Baltic country. Belarus, driven by a conscious government policy (though one Minsk denies—BelTA, June 14), is now serving as a transit point for Middle Easterners trying to reach the European Union, allowing them to fly into Belarus and then illegally cross overland into Lithuania, an EU member state. And it is reportedly doing the same against Poland (RMF 24, June 10). Not only is this flow of migrants designed to put political pressure on Vilnius, Warsaw and the EU, but Belarus itself is also profiting from such people in the bargain. For its part, Vilnius has responded to the crisis by beefing up border controls; however, local officials warn the problem may soon grow to the point where Lithuania will be forced to declare a state of emergency along its eastern frontier and seek assistance from other EU countries to counter this latest Belarusian move.
Last month (May 2021), President Alyaksandr Lukashenka publicly insinuated he would be launching this campaign. Addressing the Belarusian legislature to defend his actions related to the forcible landing of the Ryanair jet and arrest of a journalist traveling onboard, Lukashenka mentioned that Minsk had been “stopping migrants and drugs” in the past but “now, you [Lithuania and other EU countries] will have to catch them and eat [sic] them yourselves” (Interfax, May 26). Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis responded immediately. He suggested Lukashenka’s actions show “he is not just a mere dictator but more of an [Pablo] Escobar-type smuggler, providing government-owned plans and assistance to help illegal immigrants from Iraq and Syria reach European borders. He must think,” the Lithuanian diplomat asserted, “that this is the way Europe will stop putting pressure on his murderous regime or helping the opposition.” Nonetheless, Gabrielius conceded that Lithuania may need support “securing Europe’s eastern border and stopping such flows” (Greatpower.us, June 12; Ehorussia.com, Graniru.org, June 14).
The increased flows of such illegal immigrants into Lithuania are “not just random cases,” Lithuanian Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė contended (Lrytas.lt, May 27). “They are well organized,” with government-orchestrated flights from Baghdad and Istanbul to Minsk. As she pointed out, there are four such flights a week (Tvr.by, May 10), a marked contrast to the current absence of airline connections between Belarus and Western countries. Once the refugees reach Minsk, they pay enormous sums of money to Belarusian officials who then help them move to unguarded portions of the heavily-wooded Lithuanian border. The scheme has succeeded to the point that it is now attracting attention across the Middle East, and more people from that region are trying to exploit it (LRT, June 2). “It is obvious that a hybrid war is being waged against Lithuania, and these illegal migration flows are one of the means,” the minister charged (Delfi, June 5). Earlier this month, she announced that the number of illegal immigrants from Belarus has doubled since last year to 189, a small number for many countries but a large one for such a small country as Lithuania (with a population of less than three million) and a dangerous sign for the EU as a whole (LRT, June 2).
Bilotaitė noted that Belarusian border guards deny seeing anyone; while other Lithuanian officials have testified that their Belarusian counterparts seek to hide the routes that the illegal immigrants are following—more evidence of this being a conscious Belarusian policy to destabilize Lithuania and intimidate European critics of Lukashenka (Delfi, June 6).The situation appears to be deteriorating rapidly. In the past several days, for example, the Lithuanian border service reported that the number of illegal migrants crossing over from Belarus has risen to 587 so far this year—far above the number the interior minister stated weeks earlier. Officials added that 58 of these immigrants came over last weekend (June 12–13) alone. The real numbers may be larger still, of course; and the trend could be far worse than it now appears. The government’s figures take into account only those illegal immigrants the Lithuanians have caught (Pasienis.lt, June 13; Thinktanks.by, June 15).
In recent years, Lithuania has invested heavily in securing its border, but some portions of it are still unguarded and not monitored electronically. As a result, Belarus’s alleged efforts to weaponize illegal migrant flows have had some success. To prevent the situation from growing worse, Vilnius brought in more guards and troops from around the country, asked for additional appropriations to extend its electronic monitoring arrangements, and begun constructing a tent city to house the illegal immigrants until they can be returned to their homelands (Delfi, June 5). But many in the Lithuanian capital fear this may not be enough and a state of emergency in the border region may have to be declared as early as June 21, even as the Lithuanian government asks for assistance from other EU partners (Lrytas.lt, June 14).
In all their statements, Lithuanian officials stress that the country wants to remain welcoming to Belarusians and especially members of the Belarusian opposition who need even temporary asylum given Lukashenka’s repressions at home. But Vilnius, they say, is committed, both by its national and EU interests, not to allow the influx of illegal immigrants from anywhere and even more not to permit Lukashenka to intimidate Lithuania or other EU members into avoiding criticizing his regime and its actions.