The Russian threat puts security at the forefront of the European elections


(Bloomberg) — When a guard patrolling Poland’s eastern border was attacked last month by a migrant trying to cross illegally from Belarus, Prime Minister Donald Tusk rushed to the scene.

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Standing in front of camouflaged army vehicles alongside soldiers in fatigues in the village of Dubicze Cerkiewne, Tusk vowed to use all necessary means to seal the border and repel what he described as a concerted attempt to destabilize Poland. There would be an exclusion zone along the border and equipment to stop tanks and drones.

The tough talk could have come from his nationalist predecessors or their political bedfellows in Hungary, Slovakia or even the US. But Tusk is putting security first ahead of the June 9 European Parliament elections, seeking to strengthen his grip on the country at a crucial time for the continent’s political landscape.

The war in Ukraine, now well into its third year, is raising fears among the Baltic states up to and including Moldova that Russia will try to exploit Europe’s vulnerability. Pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns sought to help the rise of the far right, while authorities in Poland say Russia and ally Belarus are arming migrants.

Seizing on such warnings, Tusk, a former president of the European Council, is trying to counter these forces and also outflank his nationalist opponents in the Law & Justice Party, which he ousted from power in October.

“It is an attempt to effectively deprive populists of oxygen,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw. “What is different is that, unlike Law & Justice, Tusk wants to build the sense of security on two legs, which means a strong Poland in a strong European Union.”

Before October’s parliamentary elections, Law & Justice portrayed Tusk as weak on defense and in cahoots with Russia or Germany. But after a standoff with the EU that threatened Poland’s funding and a protest over women’s rights, Tusk and his coalition prevailed.

Tusk now wants to turn the tables before a European vote, where turnout is usually much lower than in national elections and where marginal parties often make gains. After a judge linked to the Law and Justice government defected to Belarus, Tusk’s party caved in and distributed a video claiming its ties to Russia. It also claimed to have thwarted Russian sabotage attempts.

In a post on social platform X, Tusk was blunt: “If you don’t want to go to war, vote,” he said. “No one will dare to attack a strong and united Europe. A weak and divided Europe could become the victim of aggression.”

The message has a special resonance for people living along Poland’s 400-kilometre-long border with Belarus. For months since the end of 2021, the area with Europe’s last primeval forests and swamps has been the scene of attempts by tens of thousands of undocumented migrants to enter the EU. The previous government put up a steel fence to keep them out.

However, Tusk’s rhetoric is in stark contrast to that when he was leader of the opposition. In late 2022, he called the military’s handling of migrants inhumane and accused the Law and Justice government of “wickedness.” Some from his Civic Platform party sent help.

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights noted the change in tone. It called the continuation of the previous government’s policies by Tusk’s coalition “frightening.” “There are no longer any references to humanitarianism in these announcements,” the report said in a joint statement with NGOs working on the border.

In recent weeks, the number of attempts to cross the border has increased again. Tusk said the migrants mainly came from Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran and had visas issued by Russia.

Izabela Pajszczyk owns several wooden holiday homes for rent in Niemirow, a small village on the Bug River, less than a kilometer from the border with Belarus. She said army patrols help people feel safe, but recent attacks on border guards are disturbing. She wants to see ‘real action’ from Tusk and hopes the EU will help improve security.

“In recent months, our customers started to worry less about safety issues and bookings started to look decent,” said Pajszczyk, 61. “But I fear that recent press conferences and events will derail our hopes.”

Plans to fortify the border with layers of obstacles have become a focal point of the campaign ahead of this weekend’s vote. Called ‘Shield East’ and costing 10 billion zloty ($2.5 billion), it would cover 700 kilometers and include the border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. According to an IBRiS poll for the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, around 78% of Poles support the proposal.

At a meeting in May in a stronghold of his opponents, Tusk said Poland in the coming years will depend on how the EU develops politically. For example, Hungary is currently blocking a range of military aid to Ukraine.

“We are really just one step away from openly pro-Russian forces gaining the upper hand in Europe,” he told the meeting at an open-air theater in Bialystok, the main city in the pro-Law and Justice eastern region of Podlasie. “I won’t lie to anyone that our priority should be safety.”

Military trucks carrying soldiers changing shifts and border guards going to and from their posts are a clear reminder that the situation remains tense. Part of the border investment plan is to repair and improve local roads and bridges to promote logistics.

Owners of bars and apartments, as well as souvenir sellers, fear that plans for new military installations will force them to move. The previous travel ban affected many villages, including Bialowieza, which is a base for trips to the nearby national park.

“I understand that it is a run-up to the elections to focus on security,” said Slawomir Dron, 55, who runs a restaurant in central Bialowieza. “But it would also be good if politicians went to local places to have lunch or even spend the night – to show that there is still life here and that the local population is still part of the EU and NATO.”

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