How Alexander Lukashenko could emerge as the protagonist of Europe’s next refugee crisis

Human trafficking is big business and the illegitimate leader of Belarus has more reason than ever to vie for a piece of the action unless he is stopped in his tracks.

Having long basked in the notoriety of being “Europe’s last dictator”, the cartoonish Belarusian President remains dangerously stuck in his ways and out of sync with civil society.

Alexander Lukashenko’s Faustian bargain with Vladimir Putin following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has seen Belarus reduced to a mere garrison outpost and an unwilling cobelligerent of big brother Russia in this thankless war.

It is no secret that Lukashenko’s radioactive regime is being bankrolled and kept afloat by Moscow, while simultaneously on a collision course with the European Union and embroiled in juvenile sabre-rattling with neighbouring states. Unlike the Kremlin, however, Belarus does not have the luxury of using fossil fuels as a lever to placate Western powers and cushion the blow of crippling economic sanctions on its populace.

The rigged presidential elections of 2020 were something of a watershed moment and a major wake-up call for the collective West to snap out of their “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude towards Minsk.

The Global Magnitsky Act—a bill targeting human rights violators with visa bans and asset freezes in signatory jurisdictions—had been applied shortly thereafter to Lukashenko and his inner circle cronies. Nonetheless, he continues to conflate peaceful activism with terrorism and lock up untold citizens who do not toe the governmental line.

Prisoners of conscience

As things stand, there are more than 1,500 prisoners of conscience in Belarus—most of whom are languishing incommunicado for crying foul and receive no due process aside from show trials. Arguably the foolhardiest crackdown on dissenting voices during his tenure took place two years ago in what came to be known as the state-sanctioned “hijacking” of Ryanair flight 4978.

Local authorities concocted a bogus bomb scare to forcibly ground the Vilnius-bound plane and arrest then 26-year-old opposition blogger Roman Protasevichfor alleged “high treason”.

This incident sent the country’s civil aviation industry into a tailspin—not least since the EU retaliated by closing its airspace and denying landing slots to Belarusian carriers. It also torpedoed Lukashenko’s grand plans to bolster international tourist arrivals from outside the post-Soviet space. The fact that Australia, Canada, Great Britain and the United States still advise their nationals “against all travel to Belarus” certainly does not help his cause when it comes to drawing high-spending holidaymakers.

Even bordering nations like Poland and Latvia have sent out similar warnings to intrepid travellers, citing safety concerns as well as the growing phenomenon of “hostage diplomacy” in lawless autocracies.

Minsk and Moscow are moving in lockstep on the foreign policy front, notably with respect to courting the Global South. Borne out of necessity rather than choice, both pariah states have shifted their focus eastwards and sought to establish common ground with the developing world on the basis of resisting transatlantic neocolonialism.

Whereas the Russians have made significant inroads into this unofficial bloc through heightened commercial engagement and pravda-esque political spin, Belarus is widely regarded as a kamikaze actor with little to offer emerging economies in the way of infrastructure development or natural resources.

Fomenting a humanitarian crisis

Even insofar as soft power projection is concerned, the Belarusian government has been found wanting and failed to make its presence felt across Asia, Africa and Latin America. That being said, Lukashenko put his country on the map in recent years by pitching it as a de facto conduit for Middle Eastern émigrés paying top dollar to infiltrate mainland Europe.

Though clearly a step in the right direction, the US Treasury Department’s decision to sanction Belavia last week came too little, too late considering the flagship airline’s overt complicity in the 2021 Belarus-EU border crisis.

Not only was the state-owned company operating direct routes from Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan province in Northern Iraq, to Minsk expressly as a means of flooding the continent with illegal aliens, but it has since expanded its flight network to destinations such as Egypt and India—all of which are ground zero for irregular migration.

At the same time, Belavia maintains an especially strong footprint throughout Central Asia. The unfettered access natives of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan enjoy to Belarus coupled with the financial hardship their people now face as a knock-on effect of Russia’s “special military operation” risks opening up a new front and further overwhelming the European Union with phoney asylum claimants.

Fully aware that the use of tactical nuclear weapons will pit the entire world, including BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation “fence setters”, against Russia overnight, Putin has no choice but to settle scores with the EU via non-kinetic warfare.

Fomenting another full-blown humanitarian crisis is therefore his best bet to bring Ukraine’s so-called “Western backers” to their knees without breaking the bank or depleting his arsenal. Given Belarus’ strategic location, the ex-KGB agent may well have handed over the people smuggling dossier to his attack dog in Minsk.

Wagner in Belarus

Meanwhile, Wagner’s burgeoning presence in the country and its “anything goes” corporate ethos only spells greater trouble for Belarus’ immediate NATO neighbours. After all, Yevgeny Prigozhin was not dispatched there to kick back and lie low following his unsuccessful coup attempt. Over and above the breadth of clandestine operations he still administers in sub-Saharan Africa, the wheeler-dealer’s malleability could see him co-opted to work alongside Belarusian intelligence services and facilitate the flow of undocumented migrants to Europe.

The extent to which Belarus is now at the Kremlin’s mercy and left with no raison d’être as a sovereign republic portends a potential resurfacing of “Union State” negotiations.

Harmonising entry requirements and allowing for the free internal movement of people remains the mainstay of this supranational project, which was first floated back in 1997. Furthermore, forging ever closer ties with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the African Union (AU) will invariably entail promoting greater people-to-people exchange.

As such, there is a very real danger that the Lukashenko administration might once again use “tour packages” as a smokescreen to attract budding refugees from the MENA region to Belarus and subsequently help them game the EU’s broken immigration system.

Incidentally, the greatest pushback to the “multipolar world order” Putin envisages comes from within as Europe is still considered the holy grail by most ordinary Russians. Amid a string of recent drone attacks on civilian infrastructure in and around the increasingly dystopian capital, a mass exodus of Muscovites fearing for their lives is almost certainly in the offing.

A means to an end

From Putin‘s perspective, turning the EU into a dumping ground for third-country nationals is simply a means to an end. In doing so, he ultimately seeks to fan the flames of right-wing populism and give greater legitimacy to Manchurian candidates like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn.

Lukashenko, on the other hand, is more monetarily-driven by virtue of how susceptible his infinitely smaller economy is to the ongoing Western sanctions tirade. The instrumentalisation of refugees serves as a much-needed cash cow for the former collective farm boss who is practically on his last legs.

Reassuringly, Brussels has come to grips with the brutal reality that its liberal stance on unregulated migration is no longer fit for purpose. Lithuania’s recent move to seal off two border checkpoints with Belarus is a bellwether of equally drastic measures likely to be undertaken sooner or later by Europe’s new gatekeepers on the Northeastern flank.

Needless to say, any fissures between East and West over navigating this challenge will play right into Putin’s hands while ultimately lining the pockets and prolonging the reign of Belarus’ chest-thumping despot.

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