A convenient crisis? The EU’s new refugee ‘war’ is being used by Poland’s government to crack down on democratic rights & freedom
Few people have heard of Usnarz Górny, a small village on Poland’s border with Belarus. Now, though, along with 180 others along the frontier, it’s been making international news after the government declared a state of emergency.
The reason for this is an ongoing stand-off between Polish and Belarusian border guards just outside the village, where a small group of 32 Afghan refugees has been trapped in inhumane conditions. Poland will not let them in, so they cannot exert their right to ask for asylum; Belarus, through which they have arrived, will not let them go back.
They are denied not only basic rights but also fundamentals such as shelter, medical attention, toilets, and, according to Polish activists, even food and water. Predictably, refugees are being severely abused by both EU member Poland and international pariah Belarus, reduced to ‘weapons’ and serving as pawns in a greater geopolitical game.
The bilateral brutality, cynicism, and hypocrisy on display here are revolting enough. And yet, there’s even more to this ignominy. It is also part of Poland’s rapid democratic decline. The state of emergency is the first such operation implemented in the country since the end of communist rule, and it goes far further even than restrictions deployed to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. The move has met with vocal objections from Polish opposition politicians, parts of the public, and international bodies, such as the UNHCR.
Sounding the alarms
While the state of emergency is localized and, for now at least, temporary, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has already threatened that it can be prolonged. Clearly, this is a serious and ugly matter: The state of emergency cuts the border zone off from access by media, activists, and most ordinary citizens, and suspends basic civil rights, such as assembly. Access to “information that concerns the protection of the state border and countermeasures against illegal migration” is explicitly restricted.
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There are first-hand reports from Polish journalists showing that these are not empty words. Censorship – that is the correct term here – has begun in earnest. The international NGO Reporters Without Borders has expressed grave concern about restrictions on the media. Meanwhile, activists who have challenged this special regime by symbolically cutting through some barbed wire may face harsh punishments.
Moreover, even this local state of emergency limits the rights of the Polish parliament in Warsaw as well: as long as it lasts, the legislature is not permitted to vote on the issue of early elections. In view of the fact that the ruling party has just lost control of its majority coalition, this is unlikely to be a coincidence. The manipulation and potential for setting nasty precedents is clear.
A convenient crisis?
What are the reasons for such a drastic move? The Polish government of course claims that it is acting under severe duress, to protect the nation as well as the whole of the EU. Yet these claims are transparently, offensively bogus. In reality, what we are seeing is yet another authoritarian twist in the most important country of the EU’s post-enlargement East.
The tactic used this time is all too well-known, a classic of sorts: In their 2018 bestseller ‘How Democracies Die’, American scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt noted that one of the great ironies of democratic decline and fall was that “the very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion.” In particular, when aspiring authoritarians use crises and “especially security threats to justify antidemocratic measures.” If need be, such crises can also be either manufactured or massively exaggerated.
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The two Harvard professors were writing with an eye on former American President Donald Trump’s recent assault on the American oligarchy’s flimsy remnants of decency, norms, and legality. But they also made clear that their book was about authoritarianism everywhere.
Now it is Poland’s government, run by the nationalist, right-wing PiS party, already well-known for eroding democracy and the rule of law wherever it can, that is delivering a textbook example of this ruse.
And with an added irony: The PiS-ists and their even more right-wing allies are using the antics of another, more advanced authoritarian as a pretext. It is Belarusian President Lukashenko, much further down his own road of oppression and wrongdoing, who has provided his Polish opponents with a pretext to take more steps in the same direction. There is no reasonable doubt that the Belarusian autocrat, seeking to retaliate against EU pressure, has been trying to use refugees to embarrass the bloc’s members by letting, or even making, them pass the borders of Belarus to enter the EU member states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. He has, in essence, admitted as much.
Breaking with Brussels
In response, his neighbors have erected barriers, physically and morally, rolling out the barbed wire as well as a deeply false – if fashionable – narrative: For the walls and fences, they are taking inspiration from Hungary, an EU member state that experts, rightly, have denounced for its “non-democracy” and “competitive authoritarianism.”
The EU has never found an effective way of dealing with Hungary’s degrading of democracy. But its leader Viktor Orban, while feted among international right-wingers, is at least treated with the disrespect he deserves by Western liberals, consistent with their posture.
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Yet the same liberals appear to be comfortable with the narrative spin that Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia are using to sell their inhumane and often also illegal treatment of refugees (including strictly prohibited push-backs). Their cover is that popular tale of “hybrid” this and “weaponized” that which has fueled America’s Russia Rage hysteria and has since become a staple of flimsy neo-Cold War discourse all over the West.
No wonder opportunistically alert politicos in the EU’s East now claim that they face a Belarusian “hybrid war” waged with “weaponized” migrants, against which they are defending not only themselves but all of the EU – and even, in best Cold War re-enactor lingo, “the free world.”
With shameless hyperbole, Polish PM Morawiecki has warned of Lukashenko’s attempt to trigger a “pan-European migrant crisis,” clearly trying to stoke xenophobic fears among Poland’s electorate and in the EU in general.
A state of war?
In a revealing slip of the tongue, Minister of the Interior Mariusz Kaminski has referred not to a state of emergency but to martial law. And, for good measure, he has also made sure to blame “the Russians,” as is proper nowadays when we screw up in the West. Somehow, in mysterious ways, the upcoming Russian-Belarusian Zapad-2021 military exercises also require restricting civil liberties in Poland and abusing refugees, including from Afghanistan.
However, the reality is that the Zapad maneuvers take place every four years, like the World Cup, and there is nothing more threatening today than there was in 2017, when they last took place.
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In reality, this is a narrative of hysteria and panic-mongering. Nothing remotely deserving the term ‘war’ – in any form – is occurring. It is true that Lukashenko seeks to exert pressure by a very dirty trick. But the terminology of “hybrid war” is a deliberate, reckless exaggeration – ironically enough, occasionally employed, tit for tat, by Lukashenko to denounce the EU and justify his instrumentalizing of refugees.
Reasonable experts, interested in facts and not demagogic pay-off, call what Lukashenko is doing “migration diplomacy.” Make no mistake: that’s not a harmless thing, but rather a type of coercive diplomacy. Yet it’s not war, in any shape or form – by a very long stretch. It is also, coming from largely isolated Belarus, a very weak variant of the tactic. Though there has been an increase, the actual number of refugees crossing the border is in the low thousands, the large majority of whom are not accepted.
Nothing remotely fitting the legal definition of a ‘state of emergency’, even under Polish law, is happening either. Because such a state is meant to be used for situations “of a general threat to the constitutional order of the state, the security of the citizens, or the public order,” and, of course, only when “ordinary constitutional means” are insufficient. That is the letter of the law – and there is no reasonable or honest way at all to see these conditions met in the current situation.
If you still can’t see why all that loose talk of ‘hybrid war’ is not just very silly but dangerous, ponder please the bizarre ideas of a man called Zbigniew Ziobro – Poland’s minister of justice, no less. For him, bitter that the Court of Justice of the European Union is resisting the authoritarian attacks on Poland’s judiciary he designed, even the placid EU is waging a ‘hybrid war’ – no, not on Belarus or Russia, but on his very own Poland. Yes, that’s the same EU that, for instance, in 2018 made a net contribution of 12 billion euros to the Polish budget.
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What is now happening in Poland is a fierce abuse of desperate refugees and another authoritarian advance inside the EU. It is a perverse Gesamtkunstwerk, fueled by the dishonesty and malevolence of Polish right-wingers, the brutality of a cornered dictator in Belarus, and – last but not least – the cheap talk of ‘hybrid war’ and ‘weaponization’ fostered by Western liberals and centrists. Next time you see those terms bandied about, it’s worth asking why they’re being used – and who really is the victim.
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