Main Image Credit Two border guards near Adutiskis, Lithuania, 15 June 2021. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo.
Lithuania’s biggest challenge tackling the migration crisis might lie in the government’s ability to ensure social cohesion among its own citizens.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė’s government has encountered its biggest test yet: Lithuania’s border with Belarus has become a new route for migration from Africa and the Middle East to the EU, at a scale not seen before in the region. The number of migrants detained illegally crossing the border this year has already surpassed 4,000, a 50-fold increase from last year’s total.
Although the resources of the state are already being tested to the limit by a crisis that will probably continue until a fully protected physical barrier is erected on the border, the government also has to deal with parts of society actively impeding the efforts of authorities to ensure the crisis is tackled according to international norms.
Some feel disregarded by the government and are concerned about their safety living in small towns with disgruntled migrants housed in inadequate local facilities. At the same time, anti-establishment and Kremlin-friendly actors are exploiting these fears with hopes of earning political dividends for themselves.
If the government fails to respond to the kindling dissatisfaction with its handling of the crisis, Lithuania will become yet another country in the bloc where migration is a catalyst for society’s polarisation.
The Price of Value-Driven Foreign Policy
Since the start of the pro-democracy protests in Belarus last summer, Lithuania has been one of the most vocal supporters of the opposition forces, providing refuge and support for chief opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya’s team and other dissidents and businesses fleeing Belarus. After the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight in May by Belarusian authorities with the intent of capturing a dissident, Lithuania was naturally at the forefront pushing for EU sanctions after its own citizens were abducted flying over Belarus.
However, now that Lithuania has to tackle a migration crisis crafted from the opposite side of the border, questions are being raised domestically about whether morality is worth the price. For a country of Lithuania’s size taking actions against authoritarian regimes, policymakers must set out a plan in advance of inevitable retaliation. Although the government has shown it is devoting all available resources to solving the issue, the number of migrants has been higher than usual since April. Alexander Lukashenko’s threats in May to ‘flood [the] EU with drugs and migrants’ should not have come as a surprise.
One of the measures taken to deal with the extraordinary strain put on the legal system was the migration law amendments, which some deem unconstitutional, that severely restricted the rights of migrants under specific conditions.
Recently, the Ministry of the Interior decided that migrants illegally crossing the border will be pushed back into Belarus, using force if necessary, and asked to proceed instead at official crossing points or request asylum in Lithuanian embassies and consulates. While this move significantly decreased the number of migrants being detained, it raises the question of why it has chosen to do this only now. People have called for the government not to allow entry to migrants illegally crossing the border since the start of the crisis. While the government initially claimed this would go against its legal obligations, it turned around months later to do exactly that.
As with most crises, all governments are caught in them unexpectedly. They are often forced to learn what actions to take along the way, hoping the mistakes of yesterday will soon be forgotten. However, in the case of a society that is already on edge from coronavirus pandemic restrictions and various actors ready to exploit the situation further, even small communication mistakes can have damaging consequences.
A Hotbed for Political Opportunists
Over the span of just two months, the Lithuanian state was burdened with more than 3,000 people in need of accommodation and food. It lacks the infrastructure required to be prepared for migration of this scale. Hundreds of migrants were relocated from frontier stations to unused buildings in small towns in border regions mostly inhabited by the Polish-speaking minority, who are part of a Lithuanian society whose integration has not been particularly successful.
One of the chosen locations was a military facility two kilometres away from Rūdninkai, a small town. On the same day that Agnė Bilotaitė, the minister of the interior, announced that up to 1,500 migrants will be housed there, some locals mobilised and protested on the road leading to the gates of the facility. Despite them being dispersed only after the use of force and tear gas, some were still reported to have entered the facility and set a truck’s tyres on fire, injuring two officers.
This case may have been avoided had there been more communication around the locals’ concerns. It is a shame their discontent was first noticed by full-time provocateurs rather than the official authorities, who are already somewhat distrusted by the Polish-speaking minority living near the border.
Protests happening in Rūdninkai, Dieveniškės and Vilnius are often infiltrated by the same groups that have been organising protests against the government, coronavirus-related restrictions, LGBTQ+ rights and the newest enemy: migrants. It is no coincidence that ‘outside provocateurs are stoking anti-migrant sentiments’.
The ‘Family Movement’ has been a new mobilising force in Lithuania. In May, it organised one of the biggest protests in recent years, called ‘The Great Family Defense March’. It demanded the resignation of the prime minister and other ministers, and questioned Lithuania’s westward direction. Bernhard Zimniok, the MEP from the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, even recorded a message for the participants. More recently, the ‘Family Movement’ was behind a 4,500-participant anti-coronavirus vaccination and restriction protest outside of the Lithuanian parliament two weeks ago.
Right-wing individuals are not the only ones using the situation to their advantage. The southeastern border regions largely inhabited by the Polish-speaking minority are municipalities ruled by the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, the only parliamentary party that refused to support the resolution condemning Lukashenko’s actions last year and is openly critical of Lithuania’s hard stance towards Russia. Party members have been frequent visitors of the anti-migrant protests, including MP Beata Petkevič who is described as being ‘first in line when there is a protest’.
Finding the Right Response
More provocations are expected. However, aside from strong statements of condemnation from the government, which has called protesters ‘anti-state actors’, officials only have one plan on how to prevent further upheaval: declaring a state of emergency in the border regions.
In this case, this would not only deny the opportunity to protest the government’s decisions but also deploy more military troops by the border, a process that has already started. With the upcoming Russian Zapad-2021 military exercises near the Lithuanian and Polish borders in mind, the decision carries a risk of providing Putin and Lukashenko with an opportunity to claim NATO is increasing its troops on their borders in an attempt to justify unexpected military action.
The Lithuanian government is stuck in a balancing act between the international obligations of ensuring migrants’ human rights and making no mistakes that would allow Russia to justify an offensive push. If it wants to resolve the crisis in a way that leaves Lithuania on its pro-European path, it is crucial the government’s actions are transparent to prevent fuelling the Kremlin’s propaganda machine with more protest imagery.
Officials need to find the right channels and language to communicate with those who feel neglected by the state. Otherwise, Lithuania’s neighbours to the east might no longer require an incentive to interfere in its affairs.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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