The migrant crisis on the Polish border reduces the pressure on its government

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BRUZGI, Belarus – Thousands of frozen, desperate migrants withdrew last week from a extensive camp along Belarus’s border with Poland but Polish security forces are still mobilized for combat along the border, backed by a water cannon, its tower aimed at a threat that has largely disappeared, at least from sight.

Poland’s readiness to repel attacks highlights the political calculations of a Warsaw government that, with its support threatened by rising inflation, a deadly new rise in Covid infections and a host of other problems, is reluctant to let go of a border crisis that has intensified the Nationalist Government Party Law and Justice.

“This crisis suits law and justice and enables it to consolidate citizens around the government, as is usually the case in times of danger,” said Antoni Dudek, professor of political science at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw. To calm the crisis, he added, would reverse this because voters would “begin to remember all the bad things that law and justice want them to forget.”

Scenes of migrants trying to storm the border and being repulsed by explosions of icy water from Poland, which took place earlier this week here in Bruzgi, reinforced the Polish ruling party’s message that only it can defend the country against what it portrays as invading foreign hordes, and they also help it avert a crisis with the European Union. Poland joined the bloc in 2004 but has been in conflict with it for months over issues such as the treatment of LGBTQ. community, Women’s rights and that the rule of law.

Last week, Belarus shut down the huge and increasingly dirty migrant settlement on the Polish border, removed an important hotspot and shifted the main focus of the crisis to the repatriation of asylum seekers. The European Commission estimated on Tuesday that there were still up to 15,000 migrants in Belarus, of which about 2,000 were near the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Instead of declaring victory, Warsaw insists that the fight rages on, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared on Sunday that “a hybrid war is currently raging on the Polish-Belarusian border.”

After months of condemning the European Union as a bully whose insistence on LGBT rights and legal independence posed a threat to Polish sovereignty and Christian values, Poland now presents itself as the bloc’s indispensable guardian, promoting a new government slogan with its own hashtag: #WeDefendEurope .

This message, embraced by other members of the European Union, has largely overshadowed Poland’s past image as a staunch troublemaker whose hostility to sexual minorities and refusal to comply with European Court of Justice decisions raised questions about its future EU membership.

At home, the Law and Justice Party has used the war rhetoric to bolster its declining popularity, with headlines such as “Attack on Poland” and “Another Mass Attack on the Polish Border” appearing in state media. And the National Bank plans to issue commemorative coins and banknotes to honor “the defense of the Polish eastern border.”

These efforts seem to have gained a foothold among many Poles.

“The situation of immigrants makes me sad, but that is not Poland’s fault,” said Elzbieta Kabac, 57, who owns a boarding house in Narewka, near the border. “We should commend the soldiers and the police for protecting our borders, because we are not ready to take in these migrants.” She added: “The European Union does not need more migrants.”

In a latest opinion poll54 percent of Poles surveyed said the government’s response to the crisis was “very good” or “quite good”, while 34 percent said it was “very bad” or “quite bad”.

Opinion polls also suggest that the border crisis has slowed what has been a steady decline in the governing party’s popularity, but that it may still lose power in an election. An opinion poll published Monday in Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper, showed Law and Justice as Poland’s most popular party, with about 30 percent of those polled supporting it, but gave opposition parties a good chance of winning a majority in parliament if they formed a united front. The next parliamentary election is planned for 2023.

Until the border crisis hit in full force in the autumn’s stumbling laws and justice hard, shaken by internal strife and the withholding of tens of billions of euros from the European Union in aid that the party relied on to deliver its “Polish agreement,” a package of dividends to the poor and tax increases for the rich.

With economic and other problems blunting the power of its promise to defend “family values”, the ruling party took the border crisis to consolidate support, and as a traitor condemned critics of its harsh policy of pushing back all migrants, including legitimate asylum seekers. , pregnant women and the seriously ill.

Many Poles have rallied behind the government. Soldiers of Christ, a group that supports the government’s hard line against migrants, organized a mass prayer in the city of Koden on Sunday, saying they intended to defend the nearby border. And in Bialystok, the capital of the region near the Belarusian border, a right-wing extremist youth organization, Mlodziez Wszechpolska, marched in support of the policy.

There have also been ugly scenes near the border in recent weeks with right-wing extremists attacking Polish aid workers trying to help migrants who have taken over.

However, Poles who oppose the harsh policies of migrants have also taken to the streets, and some have helped the few who enter Poland. In the border town of Hajnowka on Saturday, protesters demanded the opening of a humanitarian corridor for migrants and accused the border guards of having “blood on their hands”.

There have been many reports of Polish armed services pushing asylum seekers back into Belarus, most recently by Human Rights Watch. The Polish government passed a special law last month to allow pushbacks, which are contrary to international law.

On Thursday, The Times saw a group of asylum seekers loaded on a military truck and driven to the border guard office.

Asked about the group, Katarzyna Zdanowicz, the spokeswoman for the Polish border guards, replied: “Eleven people did not seek asylum in Poland. They wanted to go to France or Ireland. They were ordered to leave Poland. They were escorted to the border line.”

Polish aid groups working in the forests that cross the border have reported a sharp reduction in the number of migrants crossing the border in recent days. But Polish authorities say Belarus has only changed its tactics and is now sending small groups to try to cross the border at night. However, with the Polish side of the border banned for all news media, this claim is impossible to verify.

Even when European figures show that the crisis peaked months ago, the Polish government has insisted that it only get worse. The European bloc border agency, Frontex, reported this week that the number of migrants entering the bloc through Belarus rose to a record level of 3,200 in July but has fallen steadily since then, to around 600 in October.

While the Polish government’s tough stance has clearly given energy to its base, it is unclear whether the tactics will call for new support.

“The jury is still out on what awaits law and justice,” said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The migration crisis helped consolidate the core electorate, but did not necessarily increase its popularity outside it. And there are other problems that Poles care about, most notably inflation and the worsening situation for Covid-19.”

The European Commission has withheld a $ 42 billion payment to Poland from a coronavirus recovery fund for breach of the rule of law. But about the Commission released the means, in Mr. Buras, “it would restore confidence in those who drifted away from the government in recent months.”

He added: “In the end, it is a trap. The party is becoming more and more radicalized in its policies. They are being held hostage by their most radical voters.”

Andrew Higgins reported from Bruzgi, Belarus and Monika Pronczuk from Hajnowka, Poland. Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw and James Hill from Bruzgi.

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