What Does the Crisis On the Border With Belarus Mean For Polish Domestic Politics and For Its European Policy?
No matter how many ways Polish allies of Viktor Orban try to imitate his tactics, it always turns out at best ineffective and often outright counterproductive. The same happens when Warsaw has tried to reproduce Hungarian narratives and strategies about border protection. At first, it looked as if the government could consolidate power by flexing xenophobic muscles, but eventually, it lacked the innovative momentum and consistency in communication to score precious points in public opinion polls this way.
There are both tactical and systemic differences that prevent such replications and lead to considerably different outcomes. As the situation is currently unfolding, it seems that PiS will have no other option but to reduce conflicts with the EU and adapt its policies to the blocks’ principles unless it wants to be left alone in a security vacuum on the border. Early in 2018, we have explained uch a scenario in relation to a potential migration crisis on the Polish-Belarus border.
Communication: a Fiasco
Some say that Poland under Communism was the merriest camp in the block for the reason that it has been so bad in implementing authoritarian methods by others, like Moscow or Beijing.
Similarly today, despite the imposition of a constitutionally provisioned state of emergency in the border area, the PiS party seems to be hardly in control of the situation where an autocrat from the other side of the border fence has held the political communication initiative for most of the time.
In effect, the Polish ruling party has missed an opportunity to capitalise on the crisis and increase its support base. The state-owned CBOS institute opinion poll from mid-November shows that the party enjoys merely 30 per cent support — the lowest since 2015. This downturn has taken place while the majority of the public opinion (70 per cent) supported forceful protection of the border including pushbacks, and the opposition was unable to produce a unified response and at times even ridiculed itself.
At the very beginning of the crisis on the Polish border in late summer, both the government and the opposition had been racing against each other for the title of the most absurd response to the crisis. On 24 August, Franek Sterczewski a young opposition MP has made a run to the borderline with bags of humanitarian aid in his hands. A Youtube video where he is tricking police and border guards until all fell down on the wet grass has been one of the top political memes this summer — easily dubbed with Benny Hill comedy show soundtrack.
Then, on 2 September, PiS introduced a state of emergency cutting off access of activists and journalists to the border zone and it appeared that the government will ultimately triumph over the opposition. The sense of control by the government was quickly lost when Mariusz Kamiński, Minister of Interior, and Mariusz Błaszczak, Minister of Defence, organised an infamous press conference on 27 September, gawping at a big screen with zoophilia porn videos as well as other types of gore content allegedly found on smartphones of some men who crossed the Belarusian-Polish border illegally.
While both gentlemen at the conference were playing their part as concerned citizens, the rest of Poland watched that show in astonishment. It was a new low in Polish public life. Quickly afterwards, internet investigators found out that the recording was depicting another animal — a horse, not a cow — and that it could not have been recorded in the Middle East and was most likely an old VHS recording — one of many commonly found on the dark web. When this news broke a day later, the government’s communication credibility about the crisis was self-obliterated and remains so until now.
Context: Poland As a Migrant Country
On the same day as the conference, Poland learned the tragic story of several children and their parents detained in Michałowo, some 15 km from the border. Border guards and police were obliged by new Polish law to push back all who cross the border illegally, including the children. The presence of children had been documented by the press, which is free to operate outside 3 km state of the emergency zone, and then they disappeared raising public opinion concerns that Poland has put them back on the border to the woods and swamps - a common landscape on the 400 km long Polish border with Belarus. Three weeks later they were found by journalists in a forest camp by the border confirming grim suspicions.
By that time, Polish services had already reported several deaths of people who had experienced hypothermia or other ailments while stuck in the woods.
Michałowo’s local council was shocked and, like several other local communities, prepared its own response. By now several towns and villages, as well as individual countryside dwellers on the border, illuminated green beacons by their building — a symbol of hope — and were providing hot meals and clothes to those who made it. They also report newcomers to the authorities who come to pick them up and drive them back to the border after checkups in local hospitals. Meanwhile, Polish charity activists continuously sought out and helped people hiding in the forests.
Part of the problem with copy-pasting Hungarian narratives about migration in Poland is that, on one hand, migration is a common experience among Polish families. From the most recent experiences to much older generations, Poles have been self-identifying as migrants for many years. A very well known 1989 movie ‘300 Miles To Heaven’ depicts the true story of two Polish boys who escape their poverty-driven families and make their way to Sweden underneath a truck where their family, in a heartbreaking scene, tells them to stay hopeful that their chances abroad would be better than at home. Society has a deep sense of compassion for the people on the border and unlike other V4 countries, the public opinion does not hold a strong anti-migrant sentiment.
Moreover, Poland is the most accepting country for migrants in the whole EU. Eurostat data shows that, in 2020, Poland has given nearly 598,047 residence permits to non-EU citizens; by comparison, Hungary, which is only four times smaller population-wise, issued only 54,835 permits. Those registrations are predominantly related to the job market and opportunities here, with 80 per cent issued to newcomers from Ukraine but the rest distributed globally among people from China, India and South-East Asia, etc.
Also for security reasons PiS cannot risk a more xenophobic narrative. Because of its complicated history, the border with Belarus is today one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse in the whole country; the Muslim population of Tatars have been living there for several centuries as well as Orthodox Polish, Russian and Belarusian minorities composing a diverse and otherwise peaceful borderland region. Anit-migrant narratives would risk raising tensions in this sensitive area which is at the same time one of the most sensitive parts of NATO’s Eastern flank.
Crisis: It’s the Security, Stupid
Military planners have for a long time warned about the so-called Suwalki gap and played out scenarios of hybrid operations that would cut off a relatively small strip of land between Poland and Lithuania by forces coming from Belarus and the Kaliningrad region — a highly militarised Russian enclave on the north of Poland. Ethnic violence was considered as one of the pretexts often used by Moscow as a rationale for interventions.
Therefore, the Polish government and opposition are alert to any signs of weaponisation of the current standoff, including the misrepresentation of the situation as merely a migration crisis.
On 10 November, Donald Tusk published an open letter to the European partners calling on recognition of the Belarusian aggression on the border aiming at destabilising Poland, Lithuania and the whole of EU. At first, several governments in the EU and then most of the European Parliament in a plenary debate recognised those arguments and by now Poland enjoys full support in a standoff with Belarus.
A day earlier Sergei Lavrov suggested that the EU should pay off Belarus to stop the ongoing inflow of migrants showing clearly that Russia was also part of the game. Russia denied such allegations and yet parachuted its special forces on the border along with Belarusians and flew their strategic bombers near the border. From Moscow’s point of view, if the humanitarian crisis would become a permanently frozen conflict on the EU and NATO border, it would give them yet another opportunity to influence their strategic chessboard.
Polish public opinion — left and right — is by now also very sensitive to anyone who would describe the situation ignoring the strategic security context. Viktor Orban keeping silent about the role of Russia and Belarus in the crisis has been noted.
A moment of solidarity with Poland may be short-lived if Belarus wins over the hearts of global public opinion. Lukashenka has been already inviting CNN and BBC reporters to the border to show then the scale of a humanitarian crisis, that he purposefully created. The crisis is also a perfect example of a cover-up story for his continuous crackdown on the remaining civil society and journalists in the country violated by his special forces and locked behind bars in hundreds as political prisoners. At the same time, Warsaw is only planning to reopen access to the border for the press as of December.
The government also knows that Poland’s ultimate weapon in this standoff is a double-edged sword. 90 per cent of train freight from China goes through Belarus and the Polish cargo port station Małaszewicze. The government is now warning of a possible stoppage which should also alert China — a major silent stakeholder in the region. It would also severely damage the income of the regime in Minsk. But just like in the case of further economic sanctions agreed by the EU on 15 November, Poland would not act alone and would request solidarity from European partners. It simply cannot afford to decrease economic competitiveness and budget incomes.
Economically speaking the government in Warsaw is now in a very sensitive position: it is increasing spending and greasing the wheels of the economy that it cannot afford a slowdown, but it will inevitably impact taxation. Moreover, the 2021-2027 EU funds are so far held off by the Commission due to violation of judicial independence and discrimination practices against minorities.
Last but not least, inflation is at a record high across the world and also in Poland, which largely contributes to public opinion discontent. A recent survey by IBRIS for Onet indicated that 42 per cent of respondents saw the rise of prices as the major problem of the government while only 11 per cent considered the border crisis as a potential source of trouble for the PiS party.
Five days later, on 15 November the President of the National Bank of Poland announced a printout of special collectors banknotes depicting the contemporary defence efforts of the eastern border, while the interest rates it controls remain at one of the historically lowest.
PiS apparently still believes that the crisis may be their political gold. The majority of Poles do not anymore.