BRUZGI, Belarus – Thousands of freezing desperate migrants retreated last week from a sprawling camp along the Belarus-Poland border, but Polish security forces are still mobilized to fight along the border, aided by a water cannon, its turret aimed at a threat that has largely disappeared. at least out of sight.
Poland’s willingness to repel the attack underscores the political calculations of the government in Warsaw, which, with its support for rising inflation, a new fatal spike in Covid infections and a host of other problems, is unwilling to let go of the border crisis that has exacerbated the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party.
“This crisis suits Law and Justice and allows citizens to consolidate around the government, as is usually the case in times of danger,” said Antoni Dudek, professor of political science at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. He added that if the crisis subsides, this will change the situation, because voters “will begin to remember all the bad things that Law and Justice would like them to forget.”
Scenes of migrants trying to storm the border and being pushed back by streams of icy water from Poland, as happened early last week here in Bruzgi, reinforced the message of the Polish ruling party that only it can protect the country from what it portrays as foreign invasion. ord. and they also help defuse the crisis with the European Union. Poland joined the bloc in 2004 but fought with it for months over issues such as treatment of the LGBT community, women’s rights and the rule of law.
Last week, Belarus closed the huge and increasingly squalid migrant settlement adjacent to the Polish border, removing a key flashpoint and shifting the crisis’s focus to the repatriation of asylum seekers. The European Commission on Tuesday calculated that up to 15,000 migrants are still in Belarus, of which about 2,000 are on the border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Instead of declaring victory, Warsaw insists on continuing the struggle, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Sunday that “at this very moment a hybrid war is taking place on the Polish-Belarusian border.”
After months of denouncing the European Union as a bully whose insistence on LGBTQ rights and judicial independence posed a threat to Poland’s sovereignty and Christian values, Poland now presents itself as an irreplaceable defender of the bloc, promoting a new government slogan with its own hashtag: #WeDefendEurope.
The message, supported by other members of the European Union, has largely overshadowed Poland’s former image as a hardened troublemaker, whose hostility towards sexual minorities and refusal to comply with European high court rulings has raised questions about the country’s future EU membership.
At home, the Law and Justice Party used military rhetoric to maintain its dwindling popularity, with headlines such as “Attack on Poland” and “Another Massive Attack on the Polish Border” that appeared in state media. The National Bank plans to issue commemorative coins and banknotes in honor of the “protection of Poland’s eastern border”.
These efforts seem to have gained the support of many Poles.
“The situation of the migrants saddens me, but this is not Poland’s fault,” said Elzbieta Kabac, 57, who owns a guest house in Narewka, near the border. “We have to praise the soldiers and police for protecting our borders because we are not ready to accept these migrants.” She added: “The European Union no longer needs migrants.”
In one recent opinion poll, 54 percent of Poles surveyed said the government’s response to the crisis was “very good” or “quite good”, while 34 percent said it was “very bad” or “rather bad”.
Opinion polls also show that the border crisis has slowed the ruling party’s steady decline in popularity, but it may still lose power in elections. An opinion poll published Monday in the liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza found Law and Justice as Poland’s most popular party, supported by about 30 percent of those polled, but gives opposition parties a good chance of winning a parliamentary majority if they form their own party. … united front. The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2023.
Until the border crisis erupted in full force this fall, Law and Justice stumbled deeply, shaken by internal squabbles and withholding tens of billions of euros from the European Union in aid that the party was counting on to fulfill its “Poland deal,” Poor aid package and increase taxes for the rich.
With economic and other challenges weakening its promise to defend “family values,” the ruling party seized on the border crisis to consolidate support, denouncing as traitors criticism of its tough policy of pushing back all migrants, even legitimate asylum seekers. , pregnant women and seriously ill patients.
Many Poles rallied around the government. Soldiers of Christ, a group that supports the government’s hard line on migrants, organized a mass prayer on Sunday in the town of Coden, stating that they intend to defend the nearby border. And in Bialystok, the regional capital near the border with Belarus, the ultra-right youth organization Mlodziez Wszechpolska has come out in support of this policy.
In recent weeks, there have also been ugly scenes near the border, when right-wing militants attacked Polish humanitarian workers trying to help migrants who crossed the border.
However, Poles who oppose tough migrant policies have also taken to the streets, and some of them are helping those few who end up in Poland. On Saturday, in the border town of Hajnowka, protesters called for the opening of a humanitarian corridor for migrants and accused the border guards of “blood on hand”.
There have been numerous reports of Polish military forces returning asylum seekers to Belarus, the most recent being Human Rights Watch. Last month, the Polish government passed a special law allowing retaliation, which is contrary to international law.
On Thursday, The Times watched as a group of asylum seekers were loaded onto a military truck and taken to a border guard office.
When asked about the group, Katarzyna Zdanovich, a spokesman for the Polish border guards, replied: “Eleven people did not seek 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 groups working in forests on both sides of the border have reported a sharp decline in the number of migrants crossing the border in recent days. But the Polish authorities say Belarus has simply changed its tactics and is now sending small groups to try to break through the border at night. However, since the Polish side of the border is closed to all media, this statement cannot be verified.
Although European data show that the crisis peaked a few months ago, the Polish government insists that the situation is only getting worse. The European bloc’s border agency, Frontex, reported this week that the number of migrants entering the bloc through Belarus rose to a record high of 3,200 in July, but has steadily declined since then, dropping to 600 in October.
While the tough stance of the Polish government has clearly activated its base, it is unclear whether this tactic will generate renewed support.
“The jury has not yet decided what lies ahead for Law and Justice,” said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The migration crisis helped consolidate the mainstream electorate, but did not necessarily increase its popularity outside of it. There are other problems that concern Poles, mainly inflation and the worsening situation with Covid-19. “
The European Commission has suspended the payment of $ 42 billion from the Coronavirus Recovery Fund to Poland due to violations of the law. But if the commission frees up funds, Mr Buras said, “it will restore the confidence of those who have left the government in recent months.”
He added: “At the end of the day, this is a trap. The party’s policy is becoming more and more radical. They become hostages of their most radical voters. “
Andrew Higgins reported from Bruzga, Belarus, and Monika Pronchuk from Hajnowka, Poland. Anatol Magdziarts provided reports from Warsaw and James Hill from Bruzga.