BRUZGI, Belarus – Thousands of frigid, desperate migrants withdrew from a sprawling encampment along Belarus’ border with Poland last week, but Polish security forces are still mobilized to fight along the border, supported by a water cannon, which the tower focuses on a threat that has largely disappeared, at least out of sight.
Poland’s readiness to fend off an attack underscores the political calculations of a Warsaw government that, with its support threatened by rising inflation, a deadly new wave of Covid infections and a host of other problems, is holding back to unleash a border crisis that has boosted the nationalist ruling party, Law and Justice.
“This crisis fits Law and Justice and allows it to consolidate citizens around the government, as is usually the case in times of danger,” said Antoni Dudek, professor of political science at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw. Letting the crisis calm down, he added, would undo this, as voters would “remember all the bad things Law and Justice would want them to forget.”
Scenes of migrants trying to storm the border and being repelled by blasts of icy water from Poland, as happened here in Bruzgi early last week, reinforced the Polish ruling party’s message that only it can defend the country against what it portrays as invading foreign hordes, and they also help defuse a crisis with the European Union. Poland joined the bloc in 2004, but has been at odds for months over issues such as the treatment of the LGBTQ community, women’s rights and the rule of law.
Last week, Belarus shut down the huge and increasingly filthy migrant settlement right against the Polish border, removing a major flashpoint and shifting the focus of the crisis to the repatriation of asylum seekers. The European Commission on Tuesday estimated that there are still up to 15,000 migrants in Belarus, about 2,000 of them near the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Rather than declare victory, Warsaw is pushing for the battle to continue, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declaring on Sunday that “a hybrid war is currently taking place on the Polish-Belarusian border”.
Read more about the border crisis between Belarus and Poland
After months of denouncing the European Union as a bully whose insistence on LGBTQ rights and judicial independence posed a threat to Polish sovereignty and Christian values, Poland now presents itself as the indispensable guardian of the bloc, promoting a new government slogan with its own hashtag: #WeDefendEurope.
This message, embraced by fellow members of the European Union, has largely overshadowed Poland’s previous image as an inveterate troublemaker whose hostility to sexual minorities and refusal to abide by the rulings of the European Supreme Court raised questions about the future EU membership of the country.
At home, the Law and Justice party has used war rhetoric to bolster its waning popularity, with headlines such as “Attack on Poland” and “A New Mass Attack on the Polish Border” appearing in state media. And the national bank plans to issue commemorative coins and notes in honor of “the defense of Poland’s eastern border”.
Those efforts seem to have gained popularity among many Poles.
“The situation of migrants makes me sad, but it is not Poland’s fault,” said Elzbieta Kabac, 57, who owns a guest house in Narewka, near the border. “We have to commend the soldiers and the police for protecting our borders because we are not ready to take in those migrants.” She added: “The European Union no longer needs migrants.”
In a recent poll, 54 percent of Poles polled said the government’s response to the crisis was “very good” or “fairly good”, while 34 percent said it was “very bad” or “fairly bad”.
Opinion polls also indicate that the border crisis has slowed the steady decline in the ruling party’s popularity, but it could still rise to power in elections. A poll published Monday in Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper, showed that Law and Justice was Poland’s most popular party, with about 30 percent of those polled supporting it, but gave opposition parties a good chance of gaining a majority in Parliament if they have a United Front. The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2023.
Until the border crisis hit in full force this fall, Law and Justice stumbled heavily, shaken by internal squabbles and withholding tens of billions of euros from the European Union in aid that the party relied on to deliver its “Polish deal,” an alms package to the poor. and tax increases for the rich.
With economic and other problems blunting the strength of its pledge to defend “family values”, the ruling party seized on the border crisis to consolidate support, denouncing critics of its harsh policies to push back all migrants, even legitimate asylum seekers, pregnant women and the seriously ill.
Many Poles have rallied behind the government. Soldiers of Christ, a group supporting the government’s hardline against migrants, organized a mass bed in the town of Koden on Sunday and said they plan to defend the nearby border. And in Bialystok, the capital of the region near the border with Belarus, a far-right youth organization, Mlodziez Wszechpolska, marched in support of the policy.
There have also been ugly scenes near the border in recent weeks with right-wing vigilantes attacking Polish aid workers who were trying to help migrants who have made the crossing.
However, Poles who oppose the harsh policies on migrants have also taken to the streets and some have helped the few who enter Poland. In the border town of Hajnowka, protesters on Saturday called for the opening of a humanitarian corridor for migrants, accusing border guards of “blood on their hands”.
There have been numerous reports of Polish armed forces pushing asylum seekers back to Belarus, most recently by Human Rights Watch. The Polish government passed a special law last month to allow pushbacks, which violate international law.
On Thursday, The Times saw a group of asylum seekers being loaded onto a military truck and driven to the border guard’s office.
When asked about the group, Katarzyna Zdanowicz, the spokeswoman for the Polish border guards replied: “Eleven people have not applied for asylum in Poland. They wanted to go to France or Ireland. They were ordered to leave Poland. They were escorted to the border.”
Polish aid organizations working in the forests on the border of the border have reported a sharp drop in the number of migrants crossing the border in recent days. But Polish authorities say Belarus has merely changed its tactics and is now sending small groups to try to breach the border at night. However, with the Polish side of the border off limits to all news media, this claim is impossible to verify.
Even as European figures show that the crisis peaked months ago, the Polish government has insisted it is only getting worse. The European bloc’s border agency, Frontex, reported this week that the number of migrants entering the bloc through Belarus soared to a record high of 3,200 in July, but has since fallen steadily, to around 600 in October.
While the Polish government’s tough stance has clearly given its base new impetus, it’s unclear whether the tactic will elicit new support.
“The jury is still out on what lies ahead for us in law and justice,” said Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council for Foreign Relations. “The migration crisis has helped to consolidate the core of the electorate, but not necessarily to increase its popularity beyond it. And there are other issues that Poland cares about, mainly inflation and the deteriorating Covid-19 situation.”
The European Commission has withheld the payment to Poland of $42 billion from a coronavirus recovery fund for violations of the rule of law. But if the commission were to release the money, Mr Buras said, “it would restore the confidence of those who drifted away from the government in recent months.”
He added: “Ultimately, it’s a trap. The party is becoming more and more radical in its policy. They are being held hostage by their most radical voters.”
Andrew Higgins reported from Bruzgi, Belarus, and Monika Pronczuk from Hajnowka, Poland. Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw and James Hill from Bruzgi.