BRUZGI, Belarus — Thousands of freezing, desperate migrants retreated last week from a sprawling encampment along Belarus’s border with Poland but Polish security forces are still mobilized for battle along the frontier, backed by water cannons, their turrets aimed at a threat that has mostly vanished, at least from view.
Poland’s readiness to repel attack highlights the political calculations of a government in Warsaw that, with its support threatened by rising inflation, a lethal new surge in Covid infections and a host of other problems, is reluctant to let go of a border crisis that has boosted the nationalist governing party, Law and Justice.
“This crisis suits Law and Justice and allows it to consolidate citizens around the government, as is usually the case in times of danger,” said Antoni Dudek, a political science professor at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw. Letting the crisis calm, he added, would reverse this because voters would “begin to remember all the bad things Law and Justice would like them to forget.”
Scenes of migrants trying to storm the border and being repelled by blasts of icy water from Poland, as happened early last week here at Bruzgi, reinforced the Polish governing party’s message that only it can defend the country against what it portrays as invading foreign hordes, and they also help it to defuse a crisis with the European Union. Poland joined the bloc in 2004 but has been at loggerheads with it for months over issues like the treatment of the L.G.B.T. community, women’s rights and the rule of law.
Last week, Belarus shut down the huge and increasingly squalid migrant settlement flush against the Polish border, removing a key flash point and shifting the main focus of the crisis to the repatriation of asylum seekers. The European Commission estimated on Tuesday that there were up to 15,000 migrants still in Belarus, with about 2,000 near the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Instead of declaring victory, Warsaw is insisting that the struggle rages on, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declaring on Sunday that “at this very moment, a hybrid war is taking place on the Polish-Belarusian border.”
After months of denouncing the European Union as a bully whose insistence on L.G.B.T. rights and judicial independence posed a threat to Polish sovereignty and Christian values, Poland now presents itself as the bloc’s indispensable guardian, promoting a new government slogan with its own hashtag: #WeDefendEurope.
This message, embraced by fellow members of the European Union, has largely eclipsed Poland’s previous image as an inveterate troublemaker whose hostility to sexual minorities and refusal to abide by the rulings of Europe’s top court raised questions about the country’s future E.U. membership.
At home, the Law and Justice party has used the rhetoric of war to bolster its waning popularity, with headlines like “Attack on Poland” and “Another mass assault on the Polish border” appearing in the state media. And the national bank plans to issue commemorative coins and notes to honor “the defense of the Polish eastern border.”
Those efforts appear to have gained traction among many Poles.
“The situation of migrants makes me sad, but it is not Poland’s fault,” said Elzbieta Kabac, 57, who owns a guesthouse in Narewka, near the border. “We should praise the soldiers and the police for protecting our borders, because we are not ready to take those migrants in.” She added: “The European Union doesn’t need any more migrants.”
In one recent opinion poll, 54 percent of Poles surveyed said that the government’s response to the crisis was “very good” or “fairly good,” with 34 percent saying it was “very bad” or “fairly bad.”
Opinion polls also indicate that the border crisis has slowed what had been a steady decline in the governing party’s popularity, but that it could still lose power in an election. An opinion poll published Monday in Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper, showed Law and Justice as Poland’s most popular party, with around 30 percent of those surveyed supporting it, but gave opposition parties a good chance of winning a majority in Parliament if they formed a united front. The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2023.
Until the border crisis hit with full force this fall, Law and Justice was stumbling badly, shaken by internal quarrels and the withholding of tens of billions of euros from the European Union in aid that the party was relying on to deliver its “Polish deal,” a package of handouts to the poor and tax hikes for the rich.
With economic and other problems blunting the power of its promise to defend “family values,” the governing party seized on the border crisis to consolidate support, denouncing as traitors critics of its hard-line policy of pushing back all migrants, even legitimate asylum seekers, pregnant women and the gravely ill.
Many Poles have rallied behind the government. Soldiers of Christ, a group that supports the government’s tough line on migrants, organized a mass prayer in the town of Koden on Sunday, saying they intended to defend the nearby border. And in Bialystok, the capital of the region near the Belarus border, a far-right youth organization, Mlodziez Wszechpolska, marched in support of the policy.
There have also been ugly scenes near the border in recent weeks with right-wing vigilantes attacking Polish aid workers trying to help migrants who have made it across.
Poles opposed to the hard-line policy on migrants have also taken to the streets, however, and some have been helping the few who make it into Poland. In the border town of Hajnowka on Saturday, protesters called for the opening of a humanitarian corridor for migrants, and accused border guards of having “blood on their hands.”
There have been numerous reports of Polish armed services pushing asylum seekers back into Belarus, most recently by Human Rights Watch. The Polish government passed a special law last month to authorize pushbacks, which are against international law.
On Thursday, The Times saw a group of asylum seekers being loaded on a military truck and being driven to the border guards’ office.
When asked about the group, Katarzyna Zdanowicz, the spokeswoman for the Polish border guards, responded: “Eleven people did not seek asylum in Poland. They wanted to go to France or Ireland. They received an order to leave Poland. They were escorted to the border line.”
Polish aid groups working in the forests that straddle the frontier have reported a sharp drop in the number of migrants crossing the border in recent days. But Polish authorities say that Belarus has merely changed its tactics and is now sending small groups to try and breach the border at night. With the Polish side of the border off limits to all news media, however, this claim is impossible to verify.
Even as European figures show the crisis peaked months ago, the Polish government has insisted it is only getting worse. The European bloc border agency, Frontex, reported this week that the number of migrants entering the bloc through Belarus rose to an all-time high of 3,200 in July but has fallen steadily since, dropping to around only 600 in October.
While the Polish government’s tough stance has clearly energized its base, it is unclear whether the tactic will conjure up new support.
“The jury is still out on what lies ahead for Law and Justice,” said Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The migration crisis helped to consolidate the core electorate, but not necessarily boost its popularity outside it. And there are other problems that Poles care about, mainly inflation and the worsening Covid-19 situation.”
The European Commission has held up the disbursement to Poland of $42 billion from a coronavirus recovery fund over rule-of-law violations. But if the commission freed up the funds, Mr. Buras said, “it would re-establish trust of those that were drifting away from the government in recent months.”
He added: “In the end, it is a trap. The party is getting more and more radicalized in their policies. They are becoming hostage to their most radical voters.”
Andrew Higgins reported from Bruzgi, Belarus, and Monika Pronczuk from Hajnowka, Poland. Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw and James Hill from Bruzgi.