(BIALYSTOK, Poland) — Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel talked with Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, on Wednesday, as part of a burst of European diplomatic efforts to end the migration crisis on the Belarusian border with Poland that Lukashenko is accused of orchestrating.
Lukashenko’s office claimed that during a call Wednesday, he and Merkel had come to a “certain understanding” over the crisis and agreed to begin immediate negotiations to resolve it. In a statement, the office said the two had agreed the negotiations would also look at resolving the “refugees’ wish to get to Germany.”
But Merkel’s spokesperson did not confirm the same, saying only that during her call she had “underlined the need to provide humanitarian care and opportunities of return” for the migrants trapped at Belarus’ border.
The call with Merkel — the second in three days — nonetheless raised hopes the crisis at the border may be easing, as at least 2,000 migrants remained trapped in a camp near it on Wednesday night and likely hundreds more in the surrounding forests.
Videos aired by Belarusian state media shows groups of migrants in the camp near the border dancing and cheering, supposedly following the call between Lukashenko and Merkel.
Over 2,000 migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have been stranded in a makeshift camp at the border with Poland in freezing temperatures for over a week, since Belarusian forces escorted them there in what European countries say was an escalation of a months-long campaign to use migrants weapons.
Lukashenko is accused of luring thousands of migrants to Belarus and funneling them to neighboring Poland and Lithuania to create a crisis on the European Union’s eastern border as retaliation for its support of the pro-democracy movement that came close to toppling him last year.
Poland and Lithuania have blocked the migrants, and Belarusian border troops have prevented them from retreating, resulting in hundreds of people finding themselves trapped in the forests along the border without food or shelter, often for weeks. Several thousand are estimated to be in Belarus currently. At least 10 people have died, though activists believe the true toll is likely higher. Hundreds of migrants have been filmed in recent days in central Minsk.
Merkel’s call with Lukashenko followed violent clashes on Tuesday, when Polish border guards fired water cannons into some migrants who were throwing stones and missiles at them at a crossing point near the town of Kuznica. Poland’s government, as well as some migrants in the camp, have accused Belarusian authorities of inciting the violence.
In recent days there has been a flurry of European diplomatic activity to try to resolve the crisis. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has called on Belarus’ foreign minister, while Merkel and France’s President Emmanuel Macron have called Lukashenko’s chief backer: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Lukashenko’s office said on Wednesday Merkel had conveyed a demand from the European Union’s president Ursula Von Der Leyen to allow international humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations, to begin working with the migrants.
Von Der Leyen wrote on Twitter on Wednesday: “People trapped at the border have to be repatriated.” The European Commission also said that it had allocated 700,000 euros in assistance to the people trapped at the border.
Following the violence on Tuesday, Belarus has moved hundreds of migrants to a warehouse near the border. But the vast majority of the migrants remained in the makeshift camp, according to Polish authorities, living largely in the open air and huddled around camp fires.
Migrants and Polish refugee charities have accused Belarusian authorities recently of manipulating migrants and spreading disinformation that they would soon be resettled to Germany and Poland.
Poland’s government has said it is strongly opposed to Germany and the EU’s outreach to Lukashenko over its head. Belarus’ democratic opposition has also cautioned against it.
“Dancing with the dictator is dangerous,” said Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarus’ main opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, after the call with Merkel was announced. “Appeasement leads to impunity. When he feels that blackmail works, and can give him what he wants, he will escalate and lead to more victims if needed. Your humanity is just a weakness for him.”
Estonia’s foreign minister, Eva-Maria Liimets, said on Tuesday that during the call with Merkel on Monday, Lukashenko had demanded Europe recognize him as Belarus’ legitimate president and lift sanctions as conditions for ending the migrant crisis.
There was no sign on Wednesday of such a concession. Lukashenko’s press office said during his call with Merkel he had not raised the issue of his legitimacy and sanctions because they were “beneath him.”
Activist groups and volunteer medics have been continuing to try to reach migrants that are ill and who find themselves trapped in the forest on the Polish side. Poland’s border guard released a video on Wednesday showing a large number of migrants packing up at the Kuznica camp and being marched somewhere, escorted by Belarusian border guards. It was not clear where they were being taken.
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