Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
Lithuanian has announced this week a state of emergency along the nearly 680-kilometre border stretch with Belarus and five kilometres inland, as well as in the migrant accommodation facilities in Kybartai, Medininkai, Pabradė, Rukla and Vilnius.
Lithuania and other Western countries accuse the Minsk regime of orchestrating the unprecedented migration influx, calling it «hybrid aggression» – thousands of irregular migrants amassed on swaths on the Polish and Belarusian border.
On Tuesday, November 9, Lithuanian MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of declaring a state of emergency.
The state of emergency has been introduced in response to the government’s proposal for the first time in an independent Lithuania’s history.
«So far, the situation here is pretty calm and we are not observing any significant changes. Personally, I do not see any enhanced presence of border guards or military in the elderate. I was just told that more locals get their IDs checked and more locals stop by our elderate to get confirmation about their residence in the municipality. (They do so) out of apprehensions of not being able to return home after they leave it,» Miroslav Bogdiun, elder of the Eišiškės elderate, part of the Varena municipality in proximity to the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, told BNN.
«In fact, the border guards I spoke to told me that our elderate is one of the calmest around. Thank God,» he added.
Under the state of emergency, the movement of vehicles in the border area without border guards’ permission is restricted, and entry into this territory is banned, except for local residents, as well as those having real estate in this area and having necessary evidence.
Vilius Petraška, elder of the Marcinkonys elderate in the Druskininkai municipality on the border with Belarus, told BNN that the topic (of state of emergency) has been in the lips of most locals this week.
«Wherever you go – be it in the shops in the centre of the settlement or at the local bus stop – people talk just about it and the pandemic. Understandably, I’d say. As most or our residents are elderly, the situation does not affect much their daily lives, but uneasiness is felt. Before, many old people wouldn’t even put locks on their doors, just a broom to stiff the handle – now things are completely different,» the elder emphasised to BNN.
Enhanced presence of border guards is visible on most of the elderate’s roads, he says.
«They have new check-points here. For those people, who go for work to Druskininkai, the trip became longer due to the stops on the road,» the official said.
Services have the right not only to check vehicles and persons, their belongings in areas under the state of emergency, but also seize illegally-possessed weapons, ammunition, explosives and other hazardous materials, as well as detain law offenders.
Petraška admitted that some people are worried that their relatives, even members of immediate families, won’t be able to visit them due to the requirement to have local residency in order to enter the municipality.
«Naturally, some are frightened that the migrants (at the border) can try to forcibly tear the border installations down and reach the local villages, but, as the Lithuanian adage says, the eyes of fear are big – we have to rely on our services, which are doing a great job.»
Asked to weigh in on the reports that some undocumented migrants have gotten through the border undetected, Petraška acknowledged to BNN that, indeed, it has been the case on several occasions.
«Some of them would wander around before being detained by the border guards. Amid the emergency, locals are very vigilant ant appearance of any new, not-local-looking person raises alarm bells. But the migrants (whom made into the elderate) were not malignant. Speaking on the whole, with security enhanced, many people feel even safer now. Many have the cell phone numbers of the local border guards and alert them of anything suspicious. We particularly rely on border guard service – the police in Druskininkai is 40 kilometres away,» Petraška said.
«As many here, I just hope that the situation will not deteriorate,» he added.
But Antanas, a dweller of Marcinkonys, says he is «very worried» about what he calls an «explosive» situation on the border. «Wars tend to start all of a sudden. Can you be sure that the dictator (Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president) does not have the option in his cards? I expect bad things are yet to come,» he told BNN.
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As part of state of emergency, migrants who entered Lithuania and were accommodated in the country will be stripped of right to communicate in writing vie e-mails or by cell phones, except for the possibility to contact the country’s authorities.
On Monday, November 8, Lithuania also placed its troops at the Belarusian border on higher alert, while the border guards said they were also preparing for all «potential scenarios».
«We believe that this decision is proportional to the situation today,» said Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė.
«First, I must say that the situation on our border is stable and under control. But as we observe what is happening on the Belarusian-Polish border, we have to be prepared for different scenarios,» the minister said.
According to her, if a similarly large number of migrants came to the Lithuanian border, it would be «a threat to Lithuania’s national security and public order».
Amid the concerns, this week, the European Commission has sent mixed messages with regard to the situation on its outer easternmost borders.
While some high-ranking EU officials said that the authoritarian Belarusian regime «weaponises» migrants on the EU’s borders, European home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson told MEPs in the Civil Liberties Committee on Tuesday, November 9, that, likely, Brussels will demand Poland, Latvia and Lithuania change recent migration laws in response to the ongoing Belarus border confrontation.
«We are in close contact, in dialogue with the three countries,» Ylva Johansson said.
The comments were made on broader concerns over illegal pushbacks of migrants and prospective asylum seekers back into Belarus.
Over 4,200 irregular migrants have crossed into Lithuania from Belarus illegally so far this year.
BNN ANALYSES | People in Lithuania’s border municipalities keep calm, but some brace for worse
Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN