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Poland's dangerous eastern border takes center stage in upcoming elections

In the middle of Poland's Bialowieza Forest, one of Europe's oldest remaining forests, stands Europe's newest border wall: a 15-foot-high metal fence topped with razor wire and security cameras. Poland finished building this fence a year ago to try to stem an influx of migrants assisted to the border by Belarusian soldiers, whose government is trying to destabilize Europe.
Rob Schmitz/NPR
In the middle of Poland's Bialowieza Forest, one of Europe's oldest remaining forests, stands Europe's newest border wall: a 15-foot-high metal fence topped with razor wire and security cameras. Poland finished building this fence a year ago to try to stem an influx of migrants assisted to the border by Belarusian soldiers, whose government is trying to destabilize Europe.

BIALOWIEZA, Poland — Hiking through the Bialowieza Forest is a journey through prehistoric Europe. It's one of the last remaining old-growth forests on the continent, home to the rare European bison.

It's not bison that stop hikers in their paths these days, though. It's Europe's newest border wall: a 15-foot-tall metal fence topped with razor wire and security cameras demarcating the line between Poland and Belarus. Poland finished this 116-mile wall a year ago in response to an uptick of migrants illegally crossing the border.

For years, the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has facilitated Belarusian visas for migrants from throughout the Middle East and Africa, escorting them to its border with the European Union in an attempt to destabilize Europe.

Now that EU-member Poland has built a wall, Belarus has turned to other tactics. In August, Polish news reports showed footage of two military helicopters from Belarus flying over the border into Polish — and NATO — airspace.

"They're really watching us closely," says Katarzyna Zdanowicz, a spokesperson for the Polish Border Patrol. "They're testing our border wall. We are always anticipating what they'll do next."

Zdanowicz says these incidents started in earnest in May. "Since then, events take place several times a week along the border," she says. "Just yesterday there was an attack, the day before yesterday there was another attack. Yesterday a group of about 60 people gathered on the Belarusian side and threw stones at our border officers."

Zdanowicz says soldiers on the Belarus side of the border are always provoking their Polish counterparts and often supply bricks and stones to migrants to throw over the wall at Polish Border Patrol vehicles. She shows pictures of broken patrol car windows and infrared videos of these attacks.

Her officers will soon have help. After Poland's government saw evidence that the Russian Wagner mercenary group was training along the Belarus side of the border, Poland's prime minister announced he'd send 10,000 additional soldiers to secure the region.

As Poland prepares to vote in national elections, the ruling party's border policies are questioned

Some political analysts criticized this, saying the ruling right-wing party Law and Justice was exaggerating the threat to secure votes for October's national election, but military analyst Marek Swierczynski says the threat is very real.

"Belarus has evolved from a difficult neighbor to a hostile neighbor," he says.

Swierczynski says Poland is exposed to hostile forces along much of its eastern border. First, of course, there is Ukraine, a country invaded by Russia. Poland must also manage the threat from Belarus, as well as its border with the Russian territory of Kaliningrad. Between Kaliningrad and Belarus, Poland and Lithuania share a 70-mile border called the Suwalki Gap, a narrow corridor connecting the Baltic states with the rest of the European Union.

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"So in any case of crisis or, God forbid, conflict," says Swierczynski, "keeping this stretch of land in control of native forces is crucial for any reinforcements of the forward-deployed NATO forces and for the defense of the free Baltic states."

Swierczynski calls the Suwalki Gap "the Holy Grail" for Russian President Vladimir Putin. If there were ever a conflict between Russia and NATO countries, analysts say Putin would likely attack this stretch of land first. And that's why Poland is taking this latest threat from Belarus seriously.

Small tourism businesses along the border have watched their clients disappear

Magdalena Ostrowska stands in front of her restored 19th century hotel and restaurant in Bialowieza, along Poland's border with Belarus. Tensions along this border have meant that Ostrowska's revenue has been cut in half. She says guests cancel their reservations because they are scared of Polish media reports that say Russia's Wagner militia is training just beyond the border in Belarus.
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Rob Schmitz/NPR
Magdalena Ostrowska stands in front of her restored 19th century hotel and restaurant in Bialowieza, along Poland's border with Belarus. Tensions along this border have meant that Ostrowska's revenue has been cut in half. She says guests cancel their reservations because they are scared of Polish media reports that say Russia's Wagner militia is training just beyond the border in Belarus.

For those living along the border, none of this is good news.

Magdalena Ostrowska walks up a spiral staircase to the top of a century-old water tower that's been converted into a hotel room. It's empty; as are many rooms here at her restored 19th-century hotel along the border, outside the town of Bialowieza.

"When the media reported that soldiers from the Wagner Group were across the border, tourists called us and canceled their reservations," she says. "They told me they were too afraid to come. I told them there's nothing to worry about. It's peaceful and quiet here, as you can see, but they didn't listen."

Ostrowska says her revenue was cut in half this year because of the drop in tourism. What's worse, this comes after the COVID-19 pandemic and a year when this region was blocked off from the public by the military to deal with the migration crisis.

"And now we're waiting for what's next," she says, shaking her head. "Will they lock down this area again because of another incident? This is our future, our jobs. It doesn't seem fair."

A few miles away in downtown Bialowieza, tour guide Nina Zin says she's also lost money because of the border threat, which she thinks is hyped by the Polish media and has been turned into a political spectacle by the government.

"The government said they won't give an inch along this border," she says, "but the helicopter from Belarus flew three full kilometers inside of our country, crossing a NATO border without permission! And we didn't even respond."

Calling out the Polish government for hypocrisy on its tough border stance now appears to be even more in order. Poland's deputy foreign minister was recently fired after his department was caught selling Polish work visas to migrants from across the developing world.

The scandal is unfolding as the Law and Justice party has put border security at the center of its reelection campaign.

"They built this reality in which this is a very big problem," says political analyst Andrzej Bobinski. "And now we find out that they're a big part of the problem."

Bobinski says the narrative that Law and Justice — known inside of Poland as PiS — has constructed around migrants and safe borders has now blown up in its face.

"So this doesn't play very well with the Law and Justice narrative about how Poland is a place that's been closed away from the outside world and how PiS is safeguarding our frontiers and not allowing for these scary people to come and change our way of life," he says.

And whether it's from Belarus, Russia, or from a visa fraud scandal, threats to Poland's ruling party are mounting. And an election is fast approaching.

Piotr Zakowiecki contributed to this report in Poland.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 2, 2023 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Bialowieza, the name of a forest and town in Poland.
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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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