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Poland border tension

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Border security and migrants are topics at the center of a closely fought election. And that sounds familiar to U.S. politics, but we are actually talking about Poland. A visa fraud scandal has rocked Poland's ruling party, and the European Union member on NATO's eastern flank is involved in a tense border standoff with Russia's ally, Belarus. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from that border.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hiking through the Bialowieza Forest is a journey through prehistoric Europe. This is one of the last remaining old-growth forests on the continent, home to the endangered European bison, but it's not a bison that stops me in my tracks.

So it took me about five minutes of hiking down a wide trail through a beautiful forest, one of Europe's oldest forests, to arrive to one of Europe's newest border fences. It's a 15-foot-tall fence topped with razor wire. A camera on a pole watches my every move, and within a couple of minutes, a Polish soldier in camouflage holding an automatic weapon appears. Time for a swift hike in the opposite direction.

Poland finished this 116-mile border wall a year ago in response to an uptick of migrants illegally crossing the border from Belarus. For years, the government of Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko welcomed migrants from throughout the Middle East and Africa, encouraging them to cross this border with Poland in an attempt to destabilize Europe. Now that Poland's built a wall, Belarus is reaching deeper into its toolbox.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: In August, Polish news reports showed footage of a military helicopter from Belarus flying over the border into Polish and NATO airspace.

KATARZYNA ZDANOWICZ: (Through interpreter) They're really watching us closely. They're testing our border wall. We are always anticipating what they'll do next.

SCHMITZ: Katarzyna Zdanowicz is a spokesperson for the Polish border patrol.

ZDANOWICZ: (Through interpreter) It started in earnest in May. Since then, events take place several times a week along the border. Just yesterday, there was an attack. The day before yesterday, there was another attack. Yesterday, a group of about 60 people gathered on the Belarussian side and threw stones at our border officers.

SCHMITZ: Zdanovich says soldiers on the Belarus side of the border are always provoking her colleagues and often supply bricks and stones to migrants to throw over the wall at Polish border patrol vehicles. She shows me 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 Russia's Wagner mercenary group was training along the border on the Belarus side, Poland's prime minister announced he'd send 10,000 additional soldiers to secure the region. Critics of Poland's ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party say it's exaggerating the threat to secure votes for October's national election. But some military analysts disagree.

MAREK SWIERCZYNSKI: Belarus has evolved from a difficult neighbor to a hostile neighbor.

SCHMITZ: Defense expert Marek Swierczynski says Poland faces not only a hostile border with Belarus. It also borders the Russian territory of Kaliningrad. And most sensitive of all, perhaps, is Poland's 70-mile border with Lithuania, which lies between Kaliningrad and Belarus. It's called the Suwalki Gap, a narrow corridor connecting the Baltic states with the rest of NATO.

SWIERCZYNSKI: So in any case of crisis or, God forbid, conflict, keeping this stretch of land in control of NATO forces is crucial for any reinforcements of the forward-deployed NATO forces and for the defense of the three Baltic states.

SCHMITZ: 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. And for those living along the border, none of this is good news. Magdalena Ostrovska (ph) leads me up a spiral staircase to the top of a century-old water tower 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.

MAGDALENA OSTROVSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: When the media reported that soldiers from the Wagner group were across the border, tourists called us and cancelled 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.

Ostrovska says her revenue was cut in half this year because of this. 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.

OSTROVSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: 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 up by the Polish media and turned into a political spectacle by the government.

NINA ZIN: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: 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 ruling Law and Justice Party has put border security at the center of its reelection campaign.

ANDRZEJ BOBINSKI: They built this reality in which this is a very big problem, and now we find out that they're a big part of the problem.

SCHMITZ: Political analyst Andrzej 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.

BOBINSKI: This doesn't play very well with the - Law and Justice's narrative about how Poland is a place that's 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.

SCHMITZ: 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. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Poland's border with Belarus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.