For much of this month, the world watched as weary migrants, some with young children and mainly from the Middle East, were coaxed and coerced into freezing conditions at a forest border with the EU. Their mounting anger at not being able to cross flared at times when rock blasts were thrown at the Polish border guards who eventually fired water cannon fire at them.
In a revealing interview with CNN last week, Lukashenko’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei laid out the psychology behind his boss’s decision to launch a frontal attack on Europe’s borders. “Belarus has shown the dark side of European democracy,” he said.
The president of the United States, Joe Biden, made it an issue early in his tenure, that democracy is under attack. “We are at a turning point,” he told an audience in Germany in February. “We must show that democracy can still be beneficial to our people in this changed world. That, in my opinion, is our galvanizing mission.”
Biden’s influence is waning among the allies, due to diplomatic missteps such as the disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan and AUKUS ‘security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom that sidelined France. Meanwhile, autocrats like Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to be seizing the opportunity to divide, discourage and sow dissent in the democracies closest to them, in Europe.
When Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei told CNN that: “Poland has violated all possible international legal laws and democratic values,” he changed logic by ignoring Lukashenko’s autocratic practices, such as what some governments condemned as illegal “kidnapping.” of a commercial aircraft that was diverted to Minsk and arresting a Belarusian opposition activist who was on board.
Wolf crying cynically, while intentionally ignoring his own violations is a convenience that autocracies routinely use to cover their tracks.
At first glance, how can the EU that defends human rights turn its back on migrants, let alone launch water cannons at them? Human rights groups have criticized Poland for preventing journalists from accessing the border region and for allegedly pushing migrants who had managed to cross the barbed wire fence back to Belarus.
It is the solidarity side of democracy, which values human rights and decency, that Biden and others fear that autocracies will exploit. At one point last week, the Lukashenko government proposed that Germany should take in 2,000 immigrants and Belarus take care of the rest.
According to Lukashenko’s foreign minister, both his boss and Putin were pressuring Merkel to reach some kind of agreement. “It was President Putin who tried to contribute to the solution of this crisis. He had talks with Chancellor Merkel, he had talks with President Lukashenko and as a result of these talks, phone calls between Merkel and Lukashenko were arranged.”
Whatever the detail of those talks, Merkel and her EU partners realized the ruse and refused to play ball. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer later said firmly: “We will not accept refugees. We will not give in to pressure and say: ‘We are taking refugees to European countries’, because this would mean implementing the very basis of this perfidious strategy.” . ”
It turns out that this is not “the dark side of European democracy”, as Makei claims, but rather the EU’s reality check on what it sees as Lukashenko’s lies.
But will that be important to Lukashenko and Putin? Of course, no. They thrive in a hybrid of arrogance and confusion where doubt replaces certainty, and sullying the moral purpose of democracy is a victory in itself.
While the manufactured crisis has so far failed to divide the EU, little of what happened is a waste for the two autocrats as it helps prop up their own illegitimate rule.
For their local audiences, the fabrication of half-truths about the alleged mistreatment by border guards and their water cannons is enough to fool some people into believing that the other side is no better than they are.
Lukashenko is exploiting the fundamental value of democracy, compassion, by turning the trauma of migrants into a weapon to turn the moral strength of the EU into vulnerability. The real weakness of Europe, which he seems to assess, is not its physical borders, but its principles.
But the real pernicious damage of Lukashenko’s wiles is inflicted at the heart of democracy itself. To fight its assault on democracy, the EU is forced to take a firm stand and reject the 2,000 immigrants. It is logical, but only at the limit of morality. He leans on the level of Lukashenko and treats those desperate people like pawns.
It is this often complicated issue that Biden wants us to explore by illuminating what democracy has at stake in the struggle ahead.
Within the European Union, the main effect of Lukashenko’s machinations will be the risk of raising the spectrum of migrants at the border even beyond the pesky pre-existing reality, a situation that has already fueled populist nationalism.
In his inaugural address, Biden used the word democracy five times in his introduction and 11 times throughout his speech. He was at the forefront of his mind as he spoke at the site where, just two weeks earlier, the first attempted coup by the United States had taken place.
Looking out over Washington’s flag-draped mall, his words broadcast to millions of living rooms and offices of autocrats around the world, Biden warned: “We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile.”
Since then, it has become even clearer that trials of democracy are far from over, both in the United States and around the world. Now, leaders must turn their well-intentioned words into action.