Thousands marched in Warsaw on Thursday to mark Poland’s Independence Day, led by far-right groups calling for strong borders, while its troops blocked hundreds of new attempts by migrants to enter the country illegally from neighboring Belarus in a tense standoff.
Security forces patrolled the capital for the parade, which was peaceful, unlike those in recent years that have seen violence by some extremists.
“Today there are not only internal disputes. Today there are also external disputes. Today there is an attack on the Polish border,” march leader Robert Bakiewicz said in a speech, adding that all Poles should support those who are protecting the eastern frontier.
The march was overshadowed by events unfolding along Poland’s border with Belarus, where thousands of riot police, troops and border guards are turning back migrants, many from the Middle East, who are trying to enter the European Union. Makeshift camps have sprung up in forests on the Belarusian side near a crossing at the Polish town of Kuznica, and with temperatures falling and access to the frontier restricted, there are fears of a humanitarian crisis.
EU officials have accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns in a “hybrid attack” to retaliate for sanctions imposed on his authoritarian regime for a harsh internal crackdown on dissent.
With the EU weighing more sanctions on Belarus, Lukashenko threatened to cut off Russian natural gas supplies to Europe that pass through a pipeline in his country. “I would recommend the Poles, Lithuanians and other brainless people to think before they talk,” he said.
The U.N. Security Council discussed the crisis privately but took no action, though six of its Western members condemned the use “of human beings whose lives and well-being have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus” and called on the international community “to hold Belarus accountable” and “to stop these inhumane actions.”
Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, called the EU members’ decision to raise the Belarus-Poland issue in the U.N.’s most powerful body “a total shame.” He said Belarus is not to blame that people who came legally to Belarus want to enter EU countries.
Courts and Warsaw’s liberal Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski had banned the Independence Day march, which celebrates Poland’s statehood, but right-wing authorities in the national government overrode the order and gave the gathering the status of a state ceremony.
The government’s support for the far-right leaders of the march underlined how Poland’s right-wing ruling party wants their backing. It also is engaged in a political fight with the EU over changes to Poland’s judiciary, seen in Brussels as an erosion of democratic norms, along with rhetoric viewed as discriminatory to LGBT groups.
In 2017, the parade drew tens of thousands and featured white nationalist and antisemitic slogans. The next year, the president, prime minister and other leaders marched the same route as the nationalists.
In seeking to ban the march, Trzaskowski argued that Warsaw, which was razed by Nazi Germany in World War II, is no place for “fascist slogans.”
Groups marched with Poland’s white-and-red flags Thursday, but some also waved the green flags of the National Radical Camp displaying a stylized hand with a sword, a far-right symbol dating to the 1930s.
The standoff near the frontier crossing at Kuznica, 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Warsaw, was on the minds of many at the march, and one banner in Warsaw read: “We Thank the Defenders of Poland’s Borders.”
Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wasik tweeted that some security forces “will go directly from Warsaw to defend our border with Belarus. When marching, remember this!”
About 15,000 Polish troops have joined riot police and guards at the border. The Belarusian Defense Ministry accused Poland of an “unprecedented” military buildup there, saying that migration control didn’t warrant such a force.
The Polish Defense Ministry said the migrants made a number of attempts to cross the border since Wednesday, as they have all week.
Near the village of Bialowieza, where a few hundred migrants threw debris across the razor-wire fence at Polish troops and then tried to destroy it, shots were fired in the air to deter them, the ministry said. Near the village of Szudzialowo, migrants attacked a soldier in the chest with a tree branch, but he fired two warning shots in the air and was unhurt, the ministry said, adding that the attackers fled deeper into Belarus.
Since the start of the year, there have been 33,000 attempts to cross the border illegally, with 17,000 in October alone, the border guard service said.
At least eight migrants have died, officials said, and conditions have been getting worse with freezing nighttime temperatures. Video from Russian state media Thursday showed hundreds of migrants pushing and scrambling to get aid that was delivered to them, along with a woman being treated for what the report said was hypothermia.
Mulusew Mamo, a UNHCR representative in Belarus who visited the migrants, called the situation there “catastrophic.”
“And in a day, it will be more catastrophic, I think,” Mamo said, adding that aid is being distributed via the Red Cross and will continue for several days.
The crisis has been brewing since summer, with migrants trying to cross from Belarus to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Many want to head for Germany, but Finland also is a destination.
Warsaw has taken a hard line, depicting the migrants as dangerous criminals and changing its law to allow the arbitrary rejection of asylum applications, something condemned by the U.N. refugee agency.
But Poland has largely gotten support on the border issue from Europe, facing only mild criticism for pushing the migrants back.
The problem “is not Poland,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “The problem is Lukashenko and Belarus and its regime, and so Poland has earned our European solidarity in this situation.”
But Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said it was “shocking” to see Europe’s inability to properly handle such a relatively low number of migrants at the Poland-Belarus border.
“A few thousand people at Europe’s Polish border, many of whom have fled some of the worst crises in the world, is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people displaced to countries that are much poorer elsewhere,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko’s main ally, for the second time in as many days. The Kremlin said they discussed the Poland-Belarus border and the importance of a “quick settlement” along international humanitarian norms.
Merkel’s office said she stressed the crisis was “brought about by the Belarusian regime, which is using defenseless people in a hybrid attack against the European Union.”
Moscow and Minsk have close political and military ties, and Russia sent two nuclear-capable strategic bombers on a training mission over Belarus for a second straight day in a strong show of support.
Lukashenko has emphasized the need to boost military cooperation in the face of what he has described as aggressive actions by NATO, which includes Poland.
The EU is looking at the role some airlines have played in carrying migrants and asylum-seekers to the bloc’s doorstep, and there are reports that it is mulling sanctions against them.
Russia’s national carrier Aeroflot strongly denied any involvement, saying it isn’t conducting any regular or charter flights to Iraq or Syria and didn’t have any between Istanbul and Minsk.
A Turkish official with direct knowledge of the issue said Turkish Airlines would halt selling tickets to Iraqi and Syrian nationals for flights to Minsk as part of measures being considered by Turkey to help resolve the crisis. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue and because he was not authorized to announce company policy.
Iraq’s Deputy Migration Minister Karim al-Nuri told the Russian state news agency Sputnik that his country will help its citizens who want to return from Belarus, working through its embassy in Russia because it doesn’t have one in Belarus.