Poland Is Using the Belarus Border Crisis to Shed Its Pariah Image


For Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, being caught in the middle of a geopolitical showdown between Belarus and the European Union isn’t a bad place to be. Having built its brand on victimhood at the hands of Brussels, Berlin, and Moscow for years, the party has been happy to step into its new self-designated role as the solitary bulwark protecting Europe from the years-old migrant bogeyman and the bloc’s enemies to the east.

In the face of Belarus’s attempts to use desperate migrants from Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere to its advantage against the EU, Poland’s government has launched its own counteroffensive over the past few weeks, publishing dramatic videos on social media and launching a dedicated web page to combat the “lies, [and] disinformation” coming from Belarus. Meanwhile, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has put out English-language speeches directed at Europe, warning that the confrontation with Belarus may be the precursor to a more dangerous military challenge from Russia.

Over the past month, this strategy has largely been a success. As the crisis on the Polish border swelled to a fever pitch, the Law and Justice Party’s messaging around the situation has yielded very real dividends. Having been considered pariahs within the EU for years, party leaders have now gained the unequivocal solidarity of the international community on the border issue and managed to rally previously waning political support at home.

For Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, being caught in the middle of a geopolitical showdown between Belarus and the European Union isn’t a bad place to be. Having built its brand on victimhood at the hands of Brussels, Berlin, and Moscow for years, the party has been happy to step into its new self-designated role as the solitary bulwark protecting Europe from the years-old migrant bogeyman and the bloc’s enemies to the east.

In the face of Belarus’s attempts to use desperate migrants from Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere to its advantage against the EU, Poland’s government has launched its own counteroffensive over the past few weeks, publishing dramatic videos on social media and launching a dedicated web page to combat the “lies, [and] disinformation” coming from Belarus. Meanwhile, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has put out English-language speeches directed at Europe, warning that the confrontation with Belarus may be the precursor to a more dangerous military challenge from Russia.

Over the past month, this strategy has largely been a success. As the crisis on the Polish border swelled to a fever pitch, the Law and Justice Party’s messaging around the situation has yielded very real dividends. Having been considered pariahs within the EU for years, party leaders have now gained the unequivocal solidarity of the international community on the border issue and managed to rally previously waning political support at home.

They have garnered timely, if mostly symbolic, offers of additional military support from the United States and Britain, and have connected their efforts to dramatically expand Poland’s military to the looming threat posed by Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and his backers in the Kremlin.

Whether this moment will last long remains uncertain. Polish leaders have continued to spar with Brussels on other issues throughout the border crisis, and the party’s claims of singlehandedly defending the EU have been undercut by the bloc’s own interventions. But the crisis has the potential to open a new chapter in Poland’s relationship with Europe, the United States, and its own electorate—so long as the Law and Justice Party plays its cards right.


As dramatic images of freezing migrant families squaring off with Polish border guards flooded the media landscape this month, the leaders of Europe, together with NATO and the U.S. government, offered Polish authorities full support on the border crisis, with the understanding that Belarus’s intentions in fomenting the situation were directed as much at them as at Poland itself.

In a fortuitous turn of events for the Law and Justice Party, Brussels appeared willing to separate its many quarrels with the party over judicial independence, the rule of law, and social issues from the need for a united front in the face of threats from Moscow and Minsk. Although the party’s approach during the crisis has preyed on European xenophobia, it presented states rather than individual migrants as the primary culprits behind the upheaval.

“They haven’t led, at least internationally, with the hard right, anti-migrant line,” former U.S. ambassador to Poland Daniel Fried said about the Polish government’s strategy. “They have led with an anti-Lukashenko tyranny line, and that is actually designed to capture a maximum of European and U.S. support.”

Poland’s leadership has endorsed a hardline anti-refugee position ever since they were elected in 2015 and largely refused to work with the EU to alleviate the much larger migrant crisis that reached its peak that year. While Germany took in over a million refugees between 2015 and 2017, Poland only accepted 8,590 over the same period.

The ruling party has tried this approach on for size during the current crisis as well. In addition to suggesting that the migrants at the border, who include women and children, are terrorists, Polish ministers also showed stills from a pornographic video in late September that they claimed to have found on a migrant’s phone. This cartoonish effort quickly backfired, and Catholic Church officials, who hold significant sway among Law and Justice’s religious base, condemned such rhetoric.

The party has since continued to implement anti-migrant policies, some in contravention of international law, but its updated rhetorical focus on Lukashenko has won the party favor at home as well as abroad. After seeing their support drop to an all-time low of 31 percent earlier this year, Law and Justice’s poll numbers rose slightly to a high of 35 percent last month. Although the increase has only been small so far, the party has successfully averted defeat and remains the most popular single party in Poland.

“The crisis on the border appeared at the appropriate moment,” Justyna Kajta, a sociologist at SWPS University in Warsaw wrote in an email interview. “It allowed for a distraction from the announcement of the [new tax and economic plan], growing inflation, and the spreading fourth wave of coronavirus.”

While fewer than 47 percent of Poles in one survey agreed with the government’s current policy that migrants who crossed the border should be sent back to Belarus, more than 85 percent of Poles agreed that the situation was the result of a hybrid war waged by Belarus.

According to Radoslaw Sikorski, who has served as Poland’s minister of foreign affairs and minster of national defense and is now a member of the European Parliament, the emergence of a threat on Poland’s border played right into the ruling party’s rhetoric.

“This is what all populist regimes around the world have done for years. There must always be an enemy, if not a foreign one then a domestic one, if not a real one then a created one,” said Sikorski, who belongs to a rival party to Law and Justice. “Here there happened to appear a real one.”

The threat from the east led more than 50 percent of Poles to agree with the government’s initiative to build a wall at the border with Belarus—a majority that goes well beyond the Law and Justice Party’s base.

Karol, an IT technician living in Krakow, Poland, who prefers to use just his first name, told Foreign Policy that Law and Justice’s handling of the border crisis improved his views of the party.

“I have never been a voter of the ruling party,” he said, “But the coordinating of the police, the army, and the border guards kept us safe. They held the border long enough to let the whole of Europe put pressure on Lukashenko.”

Despite the fact that at present there exists no military threat against Poland on the Belarusian border, Lukashenko has not ruled out a violent confrontation, even though he stated he doesn’t want an escalation. The Belarusian president stated this week that at some point, “war is unavoidable.”

The Polish government has used potential Belarusian threats to shore up support for a new defense bill that would more than double the size of Poland’s armed forces and encourage arms deals with EU member states and the United States. Poland’s defense minister announced this month that the United States, a NATO ally whose defense relationship with Poland goes back decades, will provide 300 armored vehicles to the Polish military by 2022.

The United Kingdom also signed an agreement to help Poland develop new missile defense systems during the British defense secretary’s November visit to Warsaw, where he underscored Britain’s support for Poland during the crisis. The U.K. has deployed engineers to provide assistance at Poland’s border with Belarus, while the U.S. government indicated that it sees connections between this and Russia’s recent troop buildup near Ukraine.

Although the latest U.S. deal with Poland is not explicitly connected to the border crisis, former ambassador Fried believes the situation could be the start of a further deepening of ties between the U.S. and Polish governments. “It has that potential if the Biden administration reaches out and if Poland works at it,” he said.

Despite such possibilities, thorny issues remain. “Poland could present itself here as a country that warned [about the threat from Belarus] … and this could be a ticket back to the decision-making group in the European Union,” Sikorski said. “But this would require putting out the disputes over rule of law and corruption.”

Just last week, the EU’s top court decided that the ruling party’s policies on assigning judges to Polish courts violated the bloc’s laws, and took an unprecedented step toward withholding EU funds from Poland over rule of law concerns.

“It’s not like because of the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border that Poland will be forgiven for its ongoing offenses,” said Jakub Wisniewski, the former Polish ambassador to the OECD and Ministry of Foreign Affairs official who now serves as secretary of the board of Globsec.

Instead, the EU will likely continue to treat its concerns with Poland and its geopolitical support for it as separate unrelated issues—family matters will stay family matters, but the EU will have Poland’s back in the face of outside threats.

The Law and Justice Party hasn’t been all smiles about EU involvement in easing the crisis. After initially rejecting offers of assistance from Frontex, the bloc’s border security agency, they have now begrudgingly requested help from the agency in sending migrants back to their home countries. Such doses of reality, coupled with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel reaching over the heads of Polish leaders to discuss solutions with Minsk, have tarnished the Law and Justice Party’s renegade self-image.

Gains at home are also tenuous. Kajta, the sociologist, argues that any rise in popularity the party experiences in Poland is unlikely to be long lived, and that rather than expanding their electorate, the most party leaders can hope for is a retention of their traditional conservative base. After all, Poland remains deeply divided on a range of social, cultural, and economic issues.

Nevertheless, Polish leaders have achieved gains during the border crisis that have the power to define their foreign policy for years to come. With a monster in the east for voters to fear and a new defense-oriented narrative to sell to the EU, the Law and Justice Party now has the tools to capitalize on its wins through smart domestic coalition-building and a strategic entry into the EU’s good graces.

Sober pragmatism has rarely been the Law and Justice Party’s strength. Yet if, for once, the party decided to replace dogma with realpolitik, it would have the chance to turn this crisis from a short-term respite into a path toward a more harmonious relationship with Brussels and the Polish public at large.





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