Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has announced that Belarus will close its borders with Poland and Lithuania and strengthen border controls with Ukraine. Three weeks ago he threatened to impose economic sanctions on Lithuania by diverting Belarusian cargo from the port of Klaipeda three weeks ago. This is in response to criticism from both countries about his re-election.
As the announcement was only made yesterday, it is not yet clear what this means for freight. UTLC ERA, the main operator of freight trains across the broad gauge network, said it does not have any information about cancellations of freight trains just yet. “Our train has just crossed the border as usual”, said a spokesperson.
Belarus is in a political crisis following the presidential election of 9 August. He was accused of rigging the vote and his re-election was widely contested. That led to mass demonstrations against Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. The governments of Poland and Lithuania have both spoken out against his re-election. Lukashenko says he won re-election fairly and is the victim of a smear campaign by the West.
“We are compelled to withdraw our troops from the streets, have half our army on guard and close our state border with the West, first of all with Lithuania and Poland”, Lukashenko said in a speech at a women’s forum in Minsk. “To our greatest regret, we are compelled to strengthen our border with brotherly Ukraine.”
Nothing official yet
Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller said to Reuters that Poland did not have any confirmation that the border had really been closed. Polish deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski told Reuters by text message: “We take this as another element of the propaganda campaign, a psychological game which aims to create a sense of an external threat.” Also The Polish foreign ministry told state run news agency PAP that the border was operating as normal.
Likewise, Lithuanian border guard chief Rustamas Liubajevas told the news agency the border there was also operating as usual. “We don’t know what this (announcement) means. Will they close the border to cargo, or people, or something else? … We need to wait and see what the announcement means and how it is implemented”, Lithuanian foreign affairs minister Linas Linkevicius said.
New Silk Road node
The border between Belarus and Poland lies on the most important route for rail freight traffic between Europe and China. Malaszewicze-Brest is where most Eurasian trains enter or exit Europe. Closure of this border would be a serious disturbance of New Silk Road traffic. The border with Lithuania is also used for traffic to and from China, albeit less frequently.
The route via Kaliningrad is a viable alternative already popular in use. Asked for an initual response, rail freight operators on the New Silk Road immediately pointed to the Kaliningrad route as an option. However, there would not be enough capacity to handle all the trains currently passing through the Polish-Belarusian border.
Three weeks ago, the Belarusian leader Lukashenko threatened to impose economic sanctions on Lithuania by diverting Belarusian cargo from the port of Klaipeda. The Lithuanian minister of transport and communications Jaroslav Narkevičius then waived this away as political language.
He assured that cargo is moving in the direction of Klaipeda port as usual. “To this day, this is a political threat, we are in contact with the Seaport Authority, Lithuanian Railways and the heads of other institutions. To date, there is no disruption to the transport of goods. We are discussing the situation and preparing if it would be such a political decision, but there are no disturbances to this day”,J. Narkevičius told LRT radio.