Speaking with Flemish broadcaster VTM Nieuws, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister, who is currently serving as interim prime minister while Alexander de Croo is in the United States, has reaffirmed his support for Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Labib following the controversy surrounding her trip to Crimea as a journalist last year.
The trip, Van Quickenborne assures, had not affected the relationship between Belgium and Ukraine. The minister states that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba had positively responded to a letter sent by Lahbib on the occasion of Ukraine’s Statehood Day, in which Lahbib had reaffirmed Belgium’s commitment to Ukraine and its sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula.
“This exchange showed that Belgium and Ukraine are on the same wavelength,” Van Quickenborne told VTM Nieuws. According to the minister, Kuleba “does not doubt for a second that our country and the foreign minister defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Van Quickenborne has assured the public that Belgium would continue to support and supply arms to Ukraine, which is currently facing a full-fledged invasion by Russia. Asked about Lahbib’s visit to the Russian-occupied city of Sevastopol in 2021, the deputy prime minister said he could only comment on Lahbib’s “competence as a minister, not as a journalist.”
Lahbib travelled to Crimea as part of the Global Values festival organised by the Sevastopol Academic Russian Drama Theatre “Lunacharsky”. The trip caused outrage in Ukraine, as the then-journalist had likely travelled to the Russian-occupied peninsula on a Russian visa, which is against Ukrainian law.
The trip was paid for by the Putin-linked Innopraktika Foundation, RTBF revealed, and the festival was sponsored by Russian energy monopoly Gazprom. Despite travelling all the way to the isolated Ukrainian territory, the minister only recorded a short audio segment and returned home, citing concerns with the impartiality of any potential documentary.
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A spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry made a public statement following the affair, reminding that it was “illegal” to visit territories temporarily occupied by Russian forces. Ukrainian authorities are investigating whether the minister broke the law with her visit and are working to “establish all the conditions for the trip and make decisions on further bilateral contacts.”
In interviews following her return to Belgium, she casually referred to Crimea as “Russia”, drawing further ire from Ukrainian authorities and political opponents from Flanders’ New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) party. Ukrainian media has stated that the scandal risked souring relations between Ukraine and Belgium.
Ukrainian authorities are still scheduled to publicly comment on Lahbib’s trip. Belgian newspaper De Standaard, citing unnamed sources, states that Ukrainian authorities are taking the minister’s trip to Crimea “seriously.”