Here’s what you need to know about the tensions in the standoff between Belarus and Poland
Tensions are rising on the Poland-Belarus border. Here’s what you need to know
Teams of Belarus troops have been spotted near the Poland-Belarus border, triggering fears the Baltic region could again be a flashpoint for violence.
How did the neighbourly relations between Poland and Belarus come to a halt?
In 2015, Belarus’s pro-Russian president, Alexander Lukashenko, expressed his belief that Europe was on the brink of collapse. In reaction, Polish and Lithuanian officials instituted economic sanctions on Belarus.
Poland’s government then ordered its troops to deploy to Belarus in April 2017, in an effort to deter the government. Now the border guard’s patrol teams and border guards are planning to move towards Belarus. “We’re building an iron curtain to protect our countries,” the Polish defence minister, Antoni Macierewicz, said in March.
In recent months, Belarusian forces have been seen manoeuvring near two separate but close border areas, with reports of several tanks and APCs near the border town of Artemivsk, and an unmanned vehicle being spotted in a border area in Alexandersk.
Belarusian servicemen walk to their landing craft ahead of a patrol off the coastal of Artemivsk, Belarus. Photograph: Alexander Beld/AFP/Getty Images
Who lives in this border region?
There are close to 20,000 Belarusians living in Poland, according to the state statistics office. They belong to Belarusian political parties, as well as Belarusian Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Belarusian citizenship is notoriously difficult to acquire, but obtaining a Polish passport is even more difficult. It’s estimated that of the 600,000 people who reside in Belarus, a mere 40,000 have passports.
Why is this important to Europe?
The area between Belarus and Poland has been caught up in a long-running and bloody conflict over disputed territories that has gone back centuries.
Belarus is a statelet of Russia, but is a part of the former Soviet Union. In the 18th century, Russia defeated Napoleon’s army and briefly established a border separating Poland from Belarus. A ceasefire agreement of 1878, which was agreed by both sides, provided for a buffer zone which existed until the end of the second world war.
The area that borders Poland is known as the Bukhara sector and it was at the heart of the second world war.
With a population of 400,000 people in Poland, the sector was the scene of a massive communist purge of eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The Soviet Union, which straddled the border in the early part of the 20th century, used the area as a supply base during the second world war and as a place to conduct military experiments.
In 1978, Belarus nationalised the sector and the occupation of Moldova and Bulgaria was ongoing. The UN imposed sanctions against Belarus in 1989 after it refused to withdraw troops from Moldova, which had been seized during the second world war.
The world’s largest gas pipeline, the BZ-26, that connects Italy and Germany, runs through the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
Is this a new step in the border standoff?
Teams of Belarusian soldiers are stationed at the border posts, said Jarosław Jaworski, a spokesman for the Polish border guard, but there has been no build-up of forces.
He stressed that the border between the two countries remains open, noting that border monitors continue to check vehicles for illegally crossing the border, many of which come from Belarus.
Analysis by the chief of Poland’s border guards also found that Belarusian forces were moving in the direction of Belarus from the Latvian border, prompting Warsaw to ask the EU for help in protecting its citizens.
About 30% of the Ukrainian and Crimean population lives in Belarus, and Moscow remains heavily critical of the EU for having refused to condemn the mass expulsion of Ukrainian citizens from Belarus in 2014, after then-president Mikhail Saakashvili oversaw the annexation of Crimea.
Why has Lukashenko taken a hard line with Poland?
Poland, like most other EU member states, opposes Belarus’s right to hold a referendum on the future of the country. This was a byproduct of the Donbass conflict with Russia, the country’s neighbour.
More than a third of the population of Belarus – about 7.5 million people – is ethnic Russian, who support Russia’s position on Ukraine.
Lukashenko has occasionally appeared to be sympathetic to Ukraine, but appears to have moved closer to Russia under pressure