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Latvia is poised to declare a state of emergency on its frontier with Belarus and build a border fence there, while the UK imposed fresh sanctions on Minsk exactly one year after flawed elections led to the continuation of Alexander Lukashenko as the country’s authoritarian president.
Responding to a surge of migrants from Belarus that the Baltic country has described as “hybrid warfare”, Latvia’s interior minister Marija Golubeva proposed the state of emergency on Monday and was immediately backed by prime minister Krisjanis Karins ahead of a formal decision on Tuesday.
Separately, the UK tightened its sanctions on Belarus, including on its vital potash industry, and said the US would impose further sanctions later on Monday as well.
Speaking in Minsk, a defiant Lukashenko said the UK could “choke” on its sanctions but that he was also ready for talks with the west.
The state of emergency on Latvia’s border will be declared in two municipalities in the south-east of the country and will give border guards more rights to prevent migrants crossing the frontier as well as speeding up government decision-making.
Neighbouring Lithuania was the first to experience the “weaponisation” of migrants from Belarus starting in June. But as Vilnius got tougher on its border there are signs Minsk diverted the flow of asylum seekers from Iraq, Syria and African countries towards Latvia and Poland, the two other EU and Nato states to border Belarus.
Latvia had no migrants crossing the border from Belarus in June, and only a few around the turn of this month. But that has suddenly jumped with 39 reported on Saturday, 35 on Sunday, and 86 on Monday.
More than 4,000 migrants — mostly from Iraq — have crossed into Lithuania in recent months but numbers there have slowed to a trickle and Iraq has suspended flights to Minsk under heavy pressure from the EU.
The new UK sanctions are on sectors such as potash and petroleum, they ban purchases of Belarusian state and bank securities, and include measures to prevent Belarusian airlines from flying over or landing in the UK.
Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994 and there is growing unease across the EU about his intentions as the 66-year-old leader has ramped up his anti-western dissent and repression of internal dissent over the past year.
Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times he was worried about a potential “incident” between Nato forces and Russian and Belarus troops, which are taking part in a big military exercise next month, owing to the heightened tensions from the forced migration.
Speaking in Minsk, and apparently playing up to those fears, Lukashenko told a news conference that a Russian military base could soon be established in Belarus.
“If needed, there will be not just a base here. All the Russian military forces will be based [here] in case a new world war outbreak . . . So they are right to be afraid of Lukashenko and Putin,” he said.
Golubeva, the Latvian interior minister, proposed last week to build a 134km barrier with Belarus and a 54km fence with Russia as part of a plan to deal with the increase in migrants. Latvia completed a 93km border fence with Russia to deter illegal migration earlier this year.
Commenting on the prospect of a border fence, Rinkevics, Latvia’s foreign minister, said: “It takes time but we believe under the current circumstances it is justified. We treat it [migration] as hybrid warfare so extra protection is needed.”