The Belarussian border crisis has boosted, but not transformed, the poll ratings of Poland’s right-wing ruling party, as most Poles have backed its tough stance on controlling migration. The liberal-centrist opposition has struggled to develop a clear and unified response as attempts by its leadership to convey a more nuanced message have been overshadowed by high profile public figures who, to many Poles, appear more concerned about the plight of migrants and political stunts than border security.
Fighting a ‘hybrid war’
Throughout much of the late summer political tensions in Poland grew over a migration crisis on the country’s Eastern border with Belarus. In recent months, border guards have recorded a significant and unprecedented increase in the number of attempts by migrants, primarily from the Middle East and Asia, to enter Poland illegally, apparently with assistance from the Belarussian authorities. The main controversy focused on a group of around thirty migrants who found themselves stranded for weeks with no shelter, nor access to regular food supplies and medical attention, in a makeshift camp on the Belarussian side of the border near the Polish village of Usnarz Górny, after Poland refused to admit them and the Minsk authorities prevented them from turning back.
The Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – accused Belarus of orchestrating the influx by deliberately organising transport for thousands of migrants on the false promise of legal entry to the EU, and then inducing them to cross its Western borders illegally. This, Warsaw argued, was part of a Russian-backed ‘hybrid war’ aimed at violating the integrity of the Polish state and thereby creating a broader pan-European migration crisis. It was intended as retaliation against Poland and other post-communist states that had pushed for tough EU sanctions to be imposed on the Belarussian regime following President Alexander Lukashenka’s disputed 2020 re-election and subsequent persecution of the country’s opposition.
In response, the Polish government took an uncompromising stance and strengthened its Eastern frontier by: deploying additional troops to assist border guards in sending migrants back to Belarus, laying barbed wire border fencing, and pledging to reinforce this with a new, more solid border wall. At the government’s request, the Polish President also introduced a state of emergency (initially for 30 days, but subsequently extended for a further 60) in parts of the two Polish regions bordering Belarus. This order, the first of its kind in Poland since the collapse of communism in 1989, increased the powers of the border guard, police, and armed forces, and restricted large public gatherings in, and prohibited non-resident civilians (including politicians and the media) from visiting, the affected localities. An additional reason cited for bringing in the state of emergency was concern about the potential risk of provocations in the build-up to the September Russo-Belarussian ‘Zapad’ military exercises, which involved thousands of troops and took place near the Polish border.
An increasingly emotive debate
However, emotive images of migrants stranded in a field and exposed to the elements provoked an increasingly emotionally charged political debate in Poland about the border crisis. Migrant rights groups and opposition politicians described the government’s treatment of those trying to enter the country as a national scandal, claiming that the administration was breaching their rights and putting lives at risk. At the end of September, Polish authorities found the dead bodies of three men who had tried to cross the border, while a woman’s corpse was also seen on the Belarussian side. The government’s critics attacked it for failing to provide migrants stuck near the frontier with humanitarian assistance and accused border guards of blocking efforts to deliver aid to them from the Polish side by rights groups and opposition parliamentarians. They criticised what they described as illegal ‘pushback’ by the Polish authorities arguing that they had an obligation to let migrants cross the border if they declared a desire to apply for asylum.
Law and Justice’s critics also accused the ruling party of playing on anti-migrant (and specifically anti-Muslim) sentiments and (at least to some extent) of over-stating the severity of the border situation to fuel a moral panic. They argued that the Belarussian regime could only use migrants as geo-political weapons if the Polish authorities continued to present them as a threat. Many opposition politicians also said that the government’s state of emergency was disproportionate and constitutionally dubious, pointing out that Law and Justice never resorted to such a measure in response to the coronavirus pandemic crisis. They claimed that the government’s real intention was to prevent scrutiny by journalists and rights groups of the border authorities’ illegal and inhumane actions.
The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argued that border authorities were simply fulfilling their obligation to prevent migrants from crossing illegally, and that the Latvian and Lithuanian governments had introduced similar emergency measures. They insisted that the migrants in the camp near Usnarz Górny were on Belarussian territory, so Minsk was responsible for them, and that it was illegal for activists and opposition politicians to send aid across parts of the border that were not marked as crossings. The Polish government said that it had offered to send a convoy of humanitarian aid to help the migrants, but the Belarussian authorities refused to let it cross. Law and Justice also argued that admitting even a small group would set a dangerous precedent and could lead to an even more serious crisis that the Belarussian authorities and people traffickers would exploit to orchestrate further and larger migration waves.
The migration issue boosts Law and Justice
In fact, the border crisis boosted support for Law and Justice which had faced an accumulation of problems over the summer. These included internal divisions within the governing camp which led to the loss of Law and Justice’s formal parliamentary majority, and ongoing clashes with the EU political establishment over the government’s judicial reforms and the US Biden administration over a foreign media ownership law which would impact negatively upon the American-owned Polish TVN broadcaster. The crisis provided Law and Justice with an opportunity to present itself as a strong and determined defender of Poland’s external borders against those who, it argued, wanted to open the country up to a mass influx of uncontrolled immigration.
Moreover, in spite of the fact that Law and Justice had been in an ongoing political dispute with EU political establishment throughout much of its six years in office, it could even count on the Union institutions’ support over the border crisis. This is interesting because during the 2015 parliamentary election, which first brought Law and Justice to power, the party benefited hugely from its robust opposition to the EU’s then-mandatory quotas for re-distributing (predominantly Muslim) Middle Eastern and North African migrants located in Greece and Italy, which the previous Polish government – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently Poland’s main opposition party – had agreed to. This time, well aware of how the 2015 crisis shook up European politics and strengthened the hand of Eurosceptics, while the European Commission expressed general concern about migrant rights and offered Poland assistance from the EU Frontex border agency, it also argued that Warsaw had a duty to defend its external frontier (as the Eastern border of the Union’s passport-free Schengen zone) from illegal migration.
Polls also showed that Law and Justice’s approach to this issue was clearly in tune with Polish public opinion. For example, a September survey conducted by the CBOS agency found that 48% of Poles were even against admitting refugees (never mind economic migrants) fleeing from countries where there were armed conflicts, with only 40% in favour (and only 9% wanted to allow them to settle permanently in Poland rather than granting temporary sanctuary until they could return to their home countries). 52% were against allowing those migrants located on the Polish-Belarussian border to apply for political asylum, and only 33% were in favour. 77% supported strengthening Poland’s borders and only 14% were against. Not surprisingly, therefore, the border crisis issue improved, although did not transform, Law and Justice’s poll ratings. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice’s poll average increased from 32% in July and 33% in August to 35% in September; still short of the 40% average that it enjoyed last summer, which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority.
Mr Tusk struggles to control the opposition narrative
All of this left Poland’s opposition in an awkward position as it struggled to develop a unified and credible response to the crisis. Indeed, it provided the first real test of leadership for former prime minister and EU Council President Donald Tusk, who returned to front-line Polish politics at the beginning of July once again taking over as head of Civic Platform. Conscious of the difficulties that the migration issue caused his party in the run-up to the 2015 election, Mr Tusk attempted to steer a centrist course claiming that there was no contradiction between maintaining border security and responding to migrants’ humanitarian concerns. On the one hand, he criticised Law and Justice for reacting too slowly to the crisis and failing to build a national political consensus with the opposition around migration and border security, while calling upon the government to help the migrants stranded on the border on humanitarian grounds. At the same time, knowing that the opposition was in danger of finding itself on the wrong side of public opinion on this issue, and concerned that the ‘open borders’ rhetoric coming from pro-immigration radicals was playing into Law and Justice’s hands, Mr Tusk also admitted that Belarus was primarily responsible for the crisis and appeared to endorse a tough stance on strengthening the Polish border.
However, Mr Tusk’s efforts to steer a more nuanced, middle course were undermined by the public statements and actions of more outspoken opposition-linked public figures. Public perceptions of the opposition’s stance on the border crisis were often shaped by politicians such as Civic Platform deputy Franciszek Sterczewski, who made headlines attempting to escape from border guards preventing him from crossing illegally in order to take supplies to the trapped migrants. While this may have appealed to the anti-Law and Justice liberal-left hard core, it also appeared to confirm the ruling party’s narrative that, while the government was on clearly the side of the Polish army and border guards protecting the country’s territorial integrity, much of the opposition seemed to be calling for migrants procured by the Belarussian regime from unstable parts of the world to be freely admitted into Poland and the EU Schengen zone.
A crisis lasting weeks – or even months?
The Belarussian border crisis provided Law and Justice with an issue where it was clearly in tune with Polish public opinion, and an opportunity to present itself as heading up a strong government defending the country’s border security. For sure, media interest will wax and wane and it is difficult to tell how long the crisis will remain a salient issue or whether the government’s other problems will re-assert themselves and overshadow it; although there is every chance that it could last for several more weeks, and possibly even months. While Law and Justice has a clear, simple, and popular message, Mr Tusk has struggled to control the opposition narrative with, in the eyes of many Poles, many of its other, most high profile and vocal public figures apparently more interested in political stunts than developing a credible and popular critique of, and alternative to, the government’s response. Although Mr Tusk is often portrayed by opposition-linked commentators as its most effective political strategist and convincing authority figure, the border crisis is a good example of the kind of problems that he faces trying to set out more nuanced stances on controversial issues where the political centre ground is more sympathetic to Law and Justice than its opponents.