The revelation of the new Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib’s trip to the temporarily annexed Crimea back in 2021 has caused outrage in Ukraine. And with good reason. There is plenty of evidence that Lahbib, a former journalist for the Belgian broadcaster RTBF, traveled to the Peninsula with a clear mission of spreading Russian narratives.
Her visit, funded by Vladimir Putin’s daughter Katerina Tikhonova’s “Innopraktika” fund through its “Innopraktika & Russian Seasons” initiative – a fact also mentioned by the Belgian Le Soir newspaper – was undertaken on a Russian visa and in breach of Ukrainian law. According to the law, those who wish to travel to the peninsula must do so via Ukrainian entry points.
Lahbib did not do that. She admitted that she arrived in Simferopol by plane, which is only possible via Russian territory, to attend the “Global Values” festival held on July 23-25 in Sevastopol.
“Have you returned from Ukraine or Russia?”
Upon returning to Belgian, Lahbib described her visit in an interview with RTBF Audio, , uploaded to her Facebook page on August 1, 2021. She wrote a caption that reads “here is my little postcard from the split Crimea”, which fully corresponded to the tone and agenda of her impressions of the Russia-occupied peninsula.
When the host began the interview by asking where Lahbib had returned from – Ukraine or Russia – the journalist-turned-minister ignored his question. Instead, she smiled and turned on an audio recording of a man in Crimea, called Sergey, who supposedly answers the host’s question by saying: “Here, it’s Russian culture. There is no connection to Ukrainian culture.” She did, however, note that had she given her mic to a Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar, the message would have been different.
When the host once more challenged her, saying that she was simply voicing Sergey’s opinion, she went on to assure him that history shows that Crimea is indeed Russian territory as Catherine the Great founded Sevastopol, making it look as if Crimea had simply not existed prior to that.
Meanwhile, her answers regarding sanctions imposed by the west as a result of the annexation of Crimea were focused not on why they were introduced, but on the plight of a Crimean man named Dmitry – a guide who was forced to sever ties with his partners in Germany.
“It is a tragedy,” said Dmitry.
Impressed by Russian power play
In a more disturbing twist, Lahbib, again smiling, said that the military parade that she came across impressed her a great deal, calling it “surreal,” before turning on another audio recording of a woman who said (in Russian) how proud she was of Russia and the parade. The only thing that the woman slightly disliked was that it was “regrettably” not as grandiose as in previous years due to the pandemic.
Answering the host’s question “but you didn’t go to see the military parade, did you?”, Lahbib said, “oh, no-no of course not, I attended a festival” – one dubbed Global Values and funded by the Russian government. Not only did she acknowledge that it was being used as a soft power by Russia, but she once again turned on a recording where a man is hard explicitly (!) stating that this is one of the methods for Russia to achieve its goals.
Later in the interview, Lahbib referred to the grandeur of the Russian ballet and Sergei Polunin, a Ukraine-born ballet dancer of pro-Russian views with a tattoo of Putin on his chest, while also promoting Russian ballet in general – Moscow’s darling cultural export.
Naivety is hard to believe
Some may believe that her answers and conduct are a result of outstanding naivety. However, the fact that her entire interview was read off her laptop without a single impromptu answer, casts serious doubt on this hypothesis.
Furthermore, if the script was created under the supervision of RTBF, making it a staged interview, that would question not just Lahbib’s integrity but that of RTBF too, since her entire speech could be summarized in a message that reads: “This is Russian culture, Catherine the Great created Crimea, we are struggling here because of sanctions, the military machine is outstanding, the Crimeans are proud of it, soft power is as important as hard power, ballet is great and I saw Putin’s tattoo.”
The fact that Lahbib was appointed as Minister at a time when Russia is waging a brutal war in Ukraine, also begs the question of why and how she made it to this level.
Regardless, the publicly available evidence that Lahbib traveled to Crimea on a Russian visa by plane, breaching Ukrainian law, on a trip fully funded by the Russian government, before returning to Belgium to spread narratives about the Russian military and cultural grandeur, makes it quite clear: Lahbib knew exactly what she was doing in Crimea.
It is therefore no wonder she refuses to apologize for her actions to the Ukrainian government and is being scrutinized by the Ukrainian media who have extensively questioned her real views – not just the official ones in line with Belgium’s Foreign Ministry and the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It is up to the Belgian Parliament to step in now as well.
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