An hour before Poland’s foreign minister Jarosław Sikorski was set to address a meeting of the European Parliament on Monday morning, a crowd of around 200 Poles began gathering at the Belvedere, an overlook in Warsaw that overlooks the border with Belarus.
A small group of Belarusians arrived in the eastern European capital the same day and marched alongside the Polish protesters toward the summit’s venue in Mala Dacic Park. The march ended up in front of the Belvedere, where police deployed tear gas to keep the crowds apart.
“How much longer will Belarus follow its dictator,” a Polish journalist said, referring to the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. “We can’t live with this.”
After Sikorski left the European Parliament early, hundreds of Polish and Belarusian protesters clashed on the streets of Warsaw. Polish police said that about 500 protesters were rounded up and detained, and many were later released. One protester, a 22-year-old Polish soldier, was seriously injured after being attacked by what the Polish army said were Belarusian protestors.
Officials from both the European Union and Belarus agreed to increase border surveillance at the meeting, in which Sikorski warned “another Soviet-style wall” could start being built, if the border dispute escalates. They also discussed sanctions against Belarus. Lukashenko spoke at the meeting with Donald Tusk, the European Council president. A few hours later, after more protests, Lukashenko left the summit without making a statement.
The Polish-Belarus border is a major sticking point between the European Union and Belarus. Polish officials allege that Belarus is building a wall along the frontier, moving its border guards closer to the Polish border to make it harder for Polish tourists and soldiers to cross back into Belarus.
The European Union is angry at Lukashenko’s treatment of his own people, who are limited in the ways they can move around the country. In 2018, the Financial Times reported that 700,000 people in Belarus were left in the streets, paralyzed by snow. In November, the number of citizens forced to leave their homes doubled from 2017. In Belarus, refugees are not allowed to apply for asylum.
Belarus has refused to allow the World Bank to make more loans available in the country, which was estimated to be $2.6 billion last year. “What I hear from them is threats against residents who have anything to do with the World Bank, and they don’t respect the rights of the population,” Sikorski said. “It is a violation of our fundamental rights and freedoms.”