The Trap at the Poland–Belarus Border

The Trap at the Poland–Belarus Border

The Trap at the Poland–Belarus Border

Why the Polish ruling party turned a minor border crisis into an “existential threat.”


In a sense, Poland’s turning what was initially a minor border crisis into an “existential threat facing the nation” was overdetermined, meaning there was no way the government of Jarosław Kaczyński could have treated it as anything else. I remember one of the first days after his Law and Justice party (PiS) took control of the national news channel in 2015, when broadcasters gloated that now they can talk about Muslim immigrants “for who they really are: terrorists.” Since then, it has been a never-ending deluge of the worst kind of dehumanizing cant.

Until now, PiS has had no possibility to present immigrants as a clear and present danger to Poland, since the country shares no border with countries from which they are likely to come, and the lack of a “guestworker” past means there are no networks or family ties attracting refugees to the country. But that changed when Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, seeking to strike out against a European Union that imposed sanctions after he forced down a plane to arrest a dissident, and against Poland for harboring the presidential candidate who likely won the falsified 2020 elections that led to the internal disarray, began enticing desperate Iraqis in August of this year, with the promise that they could cross the then largely unguarded forest borders into Poland, and thence westward to Germany.

PiS wasted no time calling it a war. And they mean it literally, not metaphorically. It is, they say, a “hybrid war,” a term originating with the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014 without the use of uniformed troops, which means that anything that’s not an invasion can be described as such, if it involves unwanted people. On what possible grounds could a couple of hundred (only in the last weeks did the numbers reach a few thousand) cold, wet, desperate men and families stranded in the forest constitute a lethal threat? Polish siloviki—“strongmen,” in this case the heads of the Defense Department and the Ministry of Internal Affairs—answered this question in a spectacular press conference in late September, when they presented images said to be taken from the phones of migrants arrested inside Poland. These were pictures of weapons arsenals, terrorist attacks, and decapitations, with displays of pedophilia and zoophilia (a raped cow) added for maximum dehumanization.

And so began the war inside Poland. Not between starving migrants and the Polish people but between government supporters shouting “¡No pasaran!”—which meant, logically, having soldiers grab even ill, wailing children who had stepped onto Polish soil and forcing them back into the Belarussian forest—and those who will not abide by such cruelty so obviously unnecessary from a country of 40 million facing at most 4,000 refugees in a forest.

As in most declared wars, most people rally behind the state or are inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. PiS has indeed seen a surge in public support for its “tough” stance. And yet the opposition has also been pretty intense. In part, this is because all opposition groups have seen how PiS continually invents existential—and only existential—enemies in order to justify every antidemocratic power grab it has made. Following its identification of “refugees” in its 2015 electoral campaign not just as terrorists but as biological dangers carrying anti-European germs, PiS has since described the independent judiciary, liberals, and particularly LGBT people as dire threats to Polish nationhood that only a “strong state” can counter. (Its label of “gender ideology” for any attempt to question conservative Catholic straight male hegemony prefigured the use of “critical race theory” in the United States.)

But the opposition has been passionate also because of the legacy of a more distant past, the Holocaust, discussion of Poles’ role in which has become a topic of intense national debate. The Warsaw sociologists Przemysław Sadura and Sylwia Urbańska traveled to near the sealed-off border with Belarus soon after the government imposed a state of emergency in early September. “All this talk of ‘catching’ migrants is horrifying for us,” they wrote in their first dispatch. “But we quickly realize that our interlocutors see these events totally different than we do. They just don’t see the analogies to ‘catching’ Jews, evident to us when we see people wandering the forest, hiding, and then getting denounced to the guards when they escape the forest.”

Those analogies became obvious because of the PiS government’s fixated efforts to deny any record of Polish complicity. In the face of a growing body of evidence documenting the participation of sizable numbers of regular Poles in handing Jews over to the Germans or killing them themselves—not unlike the participation of so many white Americans in lynchings and “race riots,” and explainable in part by the similarly pervasive legacy of politicized hatred preceding it—PiS has set itself as up as defender of the nation’s unblemished reputation. Holocaust historians have been put on trial for slander, and an aborted 2018 law sought to criminalize accusations of Polish complicity. But because PiS opponents correctly identify such measures as an attempt to delegitimize as “anti-Polish” any criticism of the right’s policies, they have mobilized to defend Holocaust historians, and in the process have familiarized themselves with the past.

The events on the border have thus been experienced by many as a visceral shock. Those who have believed there was only minimal complicity in the 1940s look today at the border with a sudden horror of recognition. A running theme of liberal reaction to the border crisis is thus the stunned confession: “Now I understand what Polish society in 1942 must have looked like.” If Poles can so easily accept the relegation to misery and death of people guilty of nothing more than being duped by Belarus, they say, how easy it must have been to turn over Jews whose presence in Poland even leading parties saw as intolerable.

The main opposition parties feel trapped. They can’t be seen as not defending the border, so they are mainly calling for humanitarian treatment, for EU engagement, and for the summoning of a National Security Council meeting with representatives of all political parties. The pushback against critics highlighting the cruelty of the security forces, however, has been fierce. When a popular TV actress from one of Poland’s longest-running romantic serials posted on her Instagram site a shocking clip of border police abuse, with “Murderers!” in the text, she was immediately fired by state TV. The fascist media celebrity Wojciech Cejrowski, meanwhile, garnered thousands of likes within minutes of his social media call to equip the new barbed-wire fences with automatic rifles firing away at anything that moves.

In the end, the border crisis has been manna from heaven for Kaczyński. It’s never been a dangerous crisis; the few thousand left to freeze in the forest are a pittance of the refugee numbers handled by Greece, Italy, or Spain, none of whom withheld medical care, imposed a state of emergency, or barred volunteers and journalists. But it has allowed the government to proclaim, as it does every day now, that Poland faces a threat not only from the West (that being the European Union, threatening to withhold funds due to the government’s assault on the judiciary), but from the East, too—thus justifying the “tough” measures that Kaczyński is always ready to provide. It also forces the opposition to support “national unity” or be accused of hating their own country.

As for Belarus, its ploy has backfired. The readiness of Poland to let migrants starve seems to be pushing Belarus to make sure they don’t starve on its soil. Lukashenko now faces more sanctions from the West, and increasing pressure from Russia, annoyed at the mercurial leader’s unwinnable adventurism.

As usual, the most vulnerable lose. Europe has gone further to officially abandoning all obligations to process asylum-seekers. The migrants will be lucky to escape with their lives.

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