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Russia and the Instrumentalisation of the Refugee Issue
More than 4,500 refugees and migrants are still waiting for the European political decision to end their suffering on the Belarus-Poland border, in a crisis that these borders have not experienced for the past ten years, the tensest period for the old continent regarding the refugee issue.

Eva J. KOULOURIOTIS

02/12/2021 Region: European Union Topic: Conflicts

More than 4,500 refugees and migrants are still waiting for the European political decision to end their suffering on the Belarus-Poland border, in a crisis that these borders have not experienced for the past ten years, the tensest period for the old continent regarding the refugee issue. But the current crisis on the Belarus-Poland border is being handled differently than it was in the Aegean, Evros river or the Italian coast, despite the fact that the nationalities of these refugees and migrants are the same across all these borders. This differentiation is not accidental, it is the result of a political decision to control the way in which the Western media will deal with this crisis.

In the current context, the Western media is clearly blaming the Belarusian leadership and, to a lesser extent, the Russian leadership behind it, while in the Libyan crisis, the local warlords and the Western and Arab countries that support them and are the basis for the crisis, and are not held accountable for the drowning and influx of thousands of refugees fleeing the Libyan coast to the Italian coast. No one is saying this clearly since Italy, France and Britain have had a long hand on the Libyan scene. But this is not to the liking of media platforms funded by Western international partners involved in some of these crises. In the refugee crisis on the Belarus-Poland border, the details of what went before will help us see what happens next.

Undoubtedly, what is happening today at the Belarus-Poland border is Lukashenko's political decision, whose name was added to the European sanctions list, as a result of the way he handled protests against his rule in the country. Sanctions on members of the circle around the Belarusian president have prompted the country's leadership to seek a means of putting pressure on Europe to reduce the effectiveness of these sanctions on the one hand and to prevent the European Union leadership from any new move in favour of change on the Belarusian political scene, given the clear support of some European countries in the Belarusian opposition.

But this crisis is half true. The other half is the Russian role in it, as it is not at all realistic for the Belarusian leadership to be behind it on its own. The fact is that Moscow has the upper hand in the details of this crisis. The refugees arriving directly from Damascus airport in Minsk are being transported because Moscow has given the green light. Also, the thousands of refugees who arrived in Russia via Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, are transported in an organized manner to the border with Belarus and then to the border with Poland.

Of course, Moscow has its own plans for the consequences of this crisis. It should first be noted that the Russian lobby within Europe supports far-right parties there, in France, Austria and several other EU countries. These parties have grown in popularity over the last six years as a result of the increasing flow of refugees and migrants to the European continent. Therefore, the current crisis on the Belarus-Poland border serves Moscow's plans and reinforces the rhetoric of its allies within Europe's far-right parties. In the same context, the results of this crisis may serve Moscow's future plans in the Black Sea and eastern Ukraine.

Wrong Decisions

In fact, this idea of ​​using refugees as a political weapon is not new. It has been used in the past, even in the Syrian issue. To understand the reasons for what is happening now and what may happen later, we must go back a few years earlier, and more precisely to 2013, when Turkish and German officials confirmed that the Turkish leadership had drawn up a plan that included the support of the NATO countries for military intervention in Syria, similar to the one implemented in Libya for the overthrow of Gaddafi, except that this was mainly limited to the general ban on flights over Syria.

This plan was rejected by Berlin at the time on the pretext of the complexity of the Syrian military scene. The truth is, however, that if Berlin had then agreed to this plan by banning flights, Paris and London would have supported it as well, and it would have been enough to lead to the overthrow of the Assad regime given the military balance of power, the non-existence of ISIS and even the weak influence of the Islamists in Syria at that time. Thus, Syria would have entered a peaceful political transition and then a new government, the world would not have seen the massacres of civilians that continue to this day and Europe would not have experienced the wave of refugees of 2015, nor would we have witnessed today crisis on the Belarus-Poland border. A series of wrong decisions.

Refugees are a Russian Weapon

At the beginning of 2020, the Greek-Turkish border experienced a new refugee crisis, known in its time as the Evros crisis, due to the river that separates the two countries from land. This crisis has been handled by the European Union, Greece and the Western media as Turkish pressure to Europe to reap political benefits such as the visa waiver for Turkish citizens entering the EU. In particular, the Greek media and Greek politicians took advantage of this crisis by characterising it as an invasion of refugees on the European continent and that Greece could be Europe's shield against Turkish blackmail, stopping the entry of these refugees. This again is only part of the truth of what really happened. It is a very small part of the overall picture. The events of Evros were triggered inside Syrian territory, specifically in north-western Syria in the northern countryside of Hama and the southern countryside of Idlib.

In the spring of 2019, Assad's militias, backed by Iranian militias and Russian warplanes, launched a massive military operation aimed at controlling the last stronghold of the armed Syrian opposition in north-western Syria. This military operation continued until the presidents of Turkey and Russia signed a ceasefire in March 2020.

This operation was the reason for the displacement of more than one million Syrians from their cities to refugee camps in the northern part of Syria on the Turkish border. During this Russian-led military operation, Ankara contacted European and American leaders and informed them of the dangerous situation there and the possibility of a military collapse of the Syrian opposition in front of the Russian air force, which could cause a wave of refugees estimated at five million people. Once again, there was no response from the West or any move to stop the operation there, forcing Turkey to intervene militarily on its own to support the Syrian opposition and prevent the fall of its territories. In this attempt by Turkey to put pressure on Europe, the events of Evros took place.

The truth, as disturbing as it is, is that Russia is hiding behind the Evros crisis. Had it not been for the immediate Turkish military intervention in north-eastern Syria, Russia would have displaced five million Syrians, knowing that Turkey could not withstand this huge wave on its territory and that these people would be heading for the European continent. It was Turkey that prevented this, which was attacked by the media and is still accused of using refugees against Europe.

Russia is clearly aware of the weaknesses of the countries in the EU and the importance of the refugee card for the unstable European governments that the extremist parties are taking advantage of to rise to power. Europe is currently facing three difficult options in resolving the issue of refugees trapped on the border between Belarus and Poland. Either it opens the borders to them and thus encourages more refugees to come, which will trigger more internal crises, or prevent entry so that the crisis will continue, and the media pressure will increase, thus Europe will face a moral crisis that will serve countries controlled by dictatorships such as Belarus, Russia and Assad's Syria. The third option is to comply with Belarus' terms on sanctions and the country's opposition, but even that would mean that Moscow would use that card again in Ukraine's file in the near future.

In short, we can say that Europe, which naively watched the Syrian fire burn hundreds of thousands of people, is the one who let this fire reach its south-eastern borders and today its north-eastern borders. It started trying to put out this fire by re-accepting the survival of the criminal Assad regime in power in Damascus under the title of ending the war. In fact, with this step, Europe itself will make a mistake worse than before. Another wrong decision.

The solution for Europe, in my view, is to support the rights of these peoples to freedom and democracy and to end the support for dictatorial regimes. The Syrian people are still able to oust Assad, and Syria is still very important to Moscow. Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.