Germany has again rejected a proposal by Alyaksandr Lukashenka that it take in some 2,000 migrants currently in the former Soviet republic after Belarus's authoritarian ruler accused European officials of failing to engage with Minsk on solving the problem and warning it could lead to armed conflict.
The EU accuses Minsk of bringing thousands of men, women, and children from the Middle East and pushing them to cross into the bloc through Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, in response to EU sanctions imposed after a brutal and sometimes deadly crackdown by Lukashenka against protesters who accuse him of stealing an election in August 2020.
Lukashenka was quoted on November 22 by the BelTA state news agency as saying he didn't want the crisis to escalate and that "we don't want confrontation...because we understand that if we go too far, war is unavoidable."
A German government spokesperson immediately rejected Lukashenka's criticism of Berlin's "reluctance" to take about 2,000 migrants who are among thousands stranded along the Belarusian border with the EU's eastern flank, as well as in other parts of the country.
"The idea of having a humanitarian corridor to Germany for 2,000 migrants is not a solution that is acceptable to Germany or the EU," the German government spokesperson said, reiterating Berlin's already stated position on a similar proposal from last week.
Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said the EU "must not give in to blackmail from Lukashenka."
"We have to respond united and very clearly to this state-sponsored hybrid attack on the European Union," Schallenberg told a news conference, while Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said he was reassured that Berlin was not trying to agree any separate deals with Minsk.
"I think the time has come for bilateral contacts to be dropped in favor of multipolar contact, to avoid any suspicions that something happens behind someone's back," Nauseda said after meeting with Lithuanian troops deployed at the border with Belarus.
In Brussels, EU spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc has been “in touch with a number of Belarussian interlocutors,” adding that it is looking into the possibility of holding talks with UN agencies and Belarussian officials at a technical expert level "in order to see how we can assist and help in the efforts to facilitate the repatriation of people stuck in Belarus back to safety."
Lukashenka has denied fomenting the crisis by funneling migrants from the Middle East to the border regions, though last week he admitted in an interview with the BBC that it was "absolutely possible" some Belarusian soldiers were helping the migrants attempt illegal crossings into EU territory.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on November 21 that he worried the crisis may build into something "much worse" amid accusations from Poland's border guard service that migrants were still being taken to the border.
Last week Lukashenka spoke twice by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the crisis, a move that irked some in Brussels who accuse Minsk of an "inhuman, gangster-style approach" to the situation.
In his comments on November 22, the Belarusian ruler complained that the EU was not engaging with him and that Merkel was not providing contacts as she had said she would.
"Merkel promised me that the issue will be discussed on the EU level. But they aren't. Even the contact persons she promised, they are not in contact," Lukashenka said, adding that his plan of Germany taking in 2,000 migrants also sees Minsk sending about 5,000 others back home.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned a day earlier that the migrant crisis on the border may lead to "something much worse," but Lukashenka said his country does not want any confrontation.
"We need to get through to the Poles, to every Pole, and show them that we're not barbarians, that we don't want confrontation. We don't need it. Because we understand that if we go too far, war is unavoidable... And that will be a catastrophe. We understand this perfectly well. We don't want any kind of flare-up," Lukashenka said.
The migrants say they want to get to Germany via Poland and Lukashenka has said that he is ready to send them there by plane if necessary.
On November 18, Belarusian authorities sent some 400 migrants back to Iraq aboard a plane and Lukashenka said on November 22 that his government is ready to organize a similar flight to Iraq with migrants on board "if need be."