Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party knew well what to expect from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko before he began channeling refugees from the Middle East to the Polish border. Belarusian authorities had already done so in Lithuania and Latvia. And a clear sign of what was to come, Belarus ended its readmission agreement with the EU in October. Poland has had time to continue with preventive measures in the countries of origin of the refugees. It is not, and now thousands of desperate people are huddling in the cold at the border, faced with options that are bad or very bad.
One of the reasons the PiS-led government did not work with the EU to avert the crisis months ago is because it has been busy fighting European institutions over its politicization of the Polish judicial system, among others. The irony, of course, is that the PiS had already gained notoriety for its government’s refusal to welcome asylum seekers during the EU-wide refugee crisis of 2015. It should have been obvious back then that the roles could easily be turned – and now they have.
By procrastinating until refugees had already started massing at the border, PiS created an opportunity to stage a cynical spectacle, performatively defending the Polish nation against foreign threats. Authorities have since declared a emergency state and held press conferences against the backdrop of armored vehicles – measures designed to unite the society behind the government by stoking fear and patriotism. Polish leaders also refuse to allow journalists in the border area, which leaves the impression that he has something to hide or that he is paranoid. Meanwhile, Lukashenko lets journalists in, which helps him promote his version of events.
Across the border are Belarusian forces, armed to the teeth and parked among the refugees at the border. The Polish and Belarusian soldiers are only a few tens of meters apart, with several thousand desperate men between them. The situation is tense ; a shot could be fired at any time.
If that happened, the official on the Belarusian side would be a mad dictator with a propensity for violence. Lively demonstrations of aggression are already routine for the Belarusian authorities. And, making matters worse, the more experienced military commanders on the Polish side have long been ousted by the PiS government.
Lukashenko seems to have concluded that he can better improve his position vis-à-vis the West and its most important ally, Russia, not by demonstrating that he is someone with whom others can work, but rather by showing that he is capable of anything. After all, his diet already has hijacked a civilian flight traveling between two EU member states just to retain a young journalist on board. With each provocation, the message to both Russia and the West is clear: “If you try to swallow me, I will put your throat in and suffocate you.”
The PiS government has left Poland increasingly isolated, having ruined relations with all its allies except the most pro-Russian country in the EU, Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Poland is now a pawn, as evidenced by the decision of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron bypass the Polish government and to discuss the migration crisis in calls with Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Polish citizens must now place their full confidence in the remaining goodwill of the EU and NATO. But while Article 5 of the NATO Treaty guarantees mutual defense against external aggression, it does not specify how the allies must react. Should we send an army or simply create a commission of inquiry? In the age of Hybrid War, good relations with allies are paramount. The Poles are safe as long as we are on good terms with Germany, France and the United States. Unfortunately, these relationships are currently in tatters.
The Polish government’s refusal to even ask for international aid has exacerbated the border crisis. Involving Frontex (the EU’s border and coast guard agency) would have immediately changed the math for Belarus and Russia. An attack on a Polish officer is one thing, but an attack on officers from all EU countries would be another. The Polish government also did not bother to invoke Article 4 of the NATO Treaty, even if it would trigger a consultation between allies.
Another reason Poland was not so prepared for this crisis is that the PiS has worked diligently to divide Polish society and the political elite. Desperate to thwart any kind of consensus between the parties, the government did not invite the opposition to the country’s National Security Council. But even if it did, opposition politicians would have every reason to suspect that they are being drawn into a trap. Either way, the emphasis would remain on seeking political advantage, not on building solidarity in the face of a hostile threat.
A united front between the PiS, the main opposition party, Civic Platform, and others would be much easier to support for political leaders in Berlin, Paris and Washington. Head of the Civic Platform, former President of the European Council Donald tusk, maintains good relations with former partners and allies of Poland. At the last EU summit in Brussels, he met the most important heads of state and government, while Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was largely shunned.
Standing, Morawiecki and his puppeteer, PiS conductor Jaroslaw Kaczynski, are more likely to inspire schadenfreude than sympathy. But it could be a pivotal moment for the opposition, which collectively votes better than the PiS. Now that Poland faces a real threat – not a specter raised by Germanophobia or Euroscepticism – world leaders should remember that PiS is not synonymous with Poland.
Poland remains a country to be believed, even if part of its political elite is doing everything to make it a hopeless case. Poland is not just Kaczynski, and the country itself deserves support, even if its government does not.