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EU-Belarus Border Crisis: Gas as a Deciding Actor? - Ali Berk Bilir

As the European Union (EU) - Belarus border witnesses thousands of migrants attempt to cross into the EU territory and Poland and Lithuania to open their borders, the issue of migration has a chance to affect the European gas issue that is already in distress. According to Euronews article, the gas prices cost six times higher than last year and increasing. As of 2021, the EU imports 40% of its gas from Russia and is currently building Nord Stream 2 to increase its dependence on Russia. Some argue that Russia intentionally used the gas crisis in the EU to pressure them to open Nord Line 2 pipeline. It also increased Euro-area inflation. Inflation is 3.4% in the eurozone because of 17.4% inflation in the energy sector. Belorussian President Lukashenko’s threat to halt Russian gas that flows through Belarus triggers another debate within Europe and shows the EU’s vulnerabilities amid the ongoing energy crisis in the region.

To comprehend this matter clearly, one needs to understand what is going on in the European Union - Belarus border and how they reached that point. 2020 Belarusian presidential election results did not recognize by the US, the UK, and the EU due to claims of election fraud committed by Alexander Lukashenko. The debate over elections results led to a crisis between the EU and Belarus which resulted in the former imposing sanction over the latter. However, Belarus jets intercepted a civilian flight in Belarusian airspace. They forced the plane to land at Minsk, where two of its passenger, a journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, were in Belarusian airspace arrested by Belarusian authorities on 23 May 2021. This event triggered a huge backlash against the Belarusian government, which led to another round of sanctions targeting members and state-owned companies. The EU banned Belarusian carriers from flying over the EU as well.

More and more migrants started using the Belarus route to get into the EU in 2021. Earlier, Belarus President Lukashenko declared that Belarus would no longer block migrants that aim to get into the EU. Belarus offers visa-free travel for many countries also increases its importance for migrants. For instance, according to CBC, in the first two weeks of July, more than 1100 migrants and asylum seekers entered Lithuania, compared to 81 in 2020, and only increased further as of now. This forced Lithuania to declare a state-level “extraordinary situation.” Lithuanian and EU officials blamed Belarus for weaponizing migration against them, which Belarus declined. However, Poland also offered its support to Lithuania against illegal migration back in July. Poland also accused Belarus of weaponizing migrants. The backlash against Belarus and migration further increased in Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, and across the EU in general. Although Poland and Brussels have lots of disagreements these days, the EU funded a 407 million dollar project that is necessary to close the border. Poland announced that it repelled attempts by migrants to enter the country; however, thousands were on the way. Nevertheless, there is a serious risk for escalation in the border as Poland does not let migrants enter the border while Belarus does let them back.

As the situation in the borders boils further, so does the pressure over the EU. The EU’s attempts to deal with Belarus via sanctions criticized within the EU itself for being ineffective, while advocates of sanctions argue that the only reason for Belarus to behave like that is because sanctions are hurting them. Regardless, the EU is now preparing a new wave of sanctions that targets Belarusian airline Belavia and companies that are leasing planes to them. Furthermore, the EU also considers sanctioning airline firms that they believe are involved in this “active human trafficking," which is, in other words, airlines that carry people to Minsk. Turkish Civil Aviation Authority announced they will not allow citizens of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen to fly Belarus until further notice. Belavia also declared that Belavia would not allow Iraq, Syria, and Yemen citizens to fly Belarus via Turkey.

While the European Union still discusses what to do with the crisis, Belarus leader Lukashenko warned the EU that he could halt Russian gas flow. Whether Lukashenko is bluffing or not, gas prices already spiked %7 after his threat. Nevertheless, Putin said he would talk with the Belarusian leader and “nothing good in that." Also, he stated that “this situation would be a violation of our transit contract.” Putin also repeatedly declined the West's accusation that Russia is actively helping Belarus stage a migration crisis. This crisis showed that the EU had been still vulnerable to migration issues since 2015. Tensions within the Union also slow down any attempt to solve this crisis and orchestrate a collective response. For example, the Polish government refused Brussels’s offer to help amid other disagreements and aimed to show that they could hold their own without the EU. Furthermore, increasing gas prices and inflation put pressure on national governments in the EU as well. Nevertheless, given that Belarus’s weak economic conditions and Putin’s reaction to Lukashenko’s threat, Belarus would be less likely to cut the gas flow. However, I believe this threat will definitely affect the harshness of the EU’s upcoming sanctions on Belarus. The border crisis and gas threat highlight the growing conflicts within the European Union and their vulnerabilities once again.


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