The Brussels Urban Summit which this week brings the mayors of 120 international cities to the Belgian capital has already seen the Brussels Secretary of State Pascal Smet come under fire for facilitating the visit of ultra-conservative Tehran mayor Alireza Zakani.
But after further scrutiny, it now emerges that two Russian officials were invited to the event at a time when EU policy seeks to exclude Russian representatives from such conferences. It is still unclear how they received visas to travel to Belgium but Smet maintains that he did not personally facilitate her visit.
As previously reported, Smet has faced backlash from regional and federal parliamentarians for inviting the former head of the EU-sanctioned Basij Student Organisation to a reception at the Brussels City Hall. In a comment to La Libre Belgique, Smet previously gave assurances that no Russians were invited to the event.
One of the individuals concerned is Vice Mayor of Kazan, the capital of Russia’s republic of Tatarstan, Evgenia Lodvigova. A spokesperson from Smet's office said that the official was invited as Kazan is a member of the Metropolis cities network.
The Brussels Times reveals that Lodvigova is strongly connected to Russia’s war against Ukraine and that as a local official and member of Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” party, Lodvigova plays a role in mobilising troops in Tatarstan. In September 2022, Lodvigova was personally awarded the “Order of Merit to the Fatherland” medal by Vladimir Putin for her service to the Russian state.
The medal acknowledges services to Russia’s culture and economy and especially “great contribution to the defence of the Fatherland, strengthening law and order, and ensuring state security.”
Local Russian news site “Inkazan'' notes her pro-war stance. At a Kazan Duma event in February 2023, Lodvigova reportedly spoke at length on “the topic of the Special Military Operation”.
On Russian social media, Lodvigova has reposted "Z" propaganda and fundraisers, praised Putin's United Russia party, and updated her followers about aid efforts for the “liberated territories of Donbass.”
In 2019, she hailed the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk as “indestructible” and praised the occupied Ukrainian city as “comfortable and modern.”
A spokesperson for the cabinet of the Brussels State Secretary denied any knowledge of Lodvigova's connections to the war in Ukraine and said Smet was "convinced that there were no Russian politicians present" at the summit.
"He has no say about, or access to, information regarding the examination and delivery of visa permits," the spokesperson told The Brussels Times.
Speaking to La Libre, Smet stated that “Kazan is a member of the Metropolis network” and that as Vice Mayor, Lodvigova “is equivalent in some ways to an alderwoman in Belgium.”
The second Russian national invited to the event was not visiting Belgium in a political capacity but rather as the “Secretary General of the UCLG, an organisation linked to the United Nations,” Smet's office added.
In response to questioning in the Brussels Parliament, Smet said that he had only learned yesterday that the visas for the Russian invitees had been issued not by the Federal Government, but by "another country in the Schengen area." The Russians then entered Belgium through the EU's internal borders.
Not Smet's call
As with the visa for the ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran, Smet's office maintains that responsibility rests with the Federal Government: “Decisions for visa applications... are a federal competence and are subject to a visa procedure under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Office,” a spokesperson explained.
The Belgian embassy in Moscow says that it received no request for a visa from the two Russian nationals. Smet’s cabinet insists that “the usual procedure for organising international conferences or summits had been respected.”
The spokesperson for Smet said that secretary's role in inviting the Russian politician extended to just "a general invitation letter sent by the network too all their members." He says that the network routinely invites all its members to events.
In a heated exchange in the Federal parliament on Thursday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Hadja Lahbib accused Smet of putting "repeated pressure" on her ministry, noting that his cabinet had requested 14 visas for Iranian nationals.
In the Brussels Parliament, Smet insisted that the "final decision belonged to, and came back to, the Federal Government" in relation to inviting the Iranian delegation. He says that invitations were made through the Metropolis organisation, who he referred to as an "international organisation."
He defended his decision to invite the Iranian delegation within the context of Brussels important role as a city of international diplomacy, but stated that he "understood perfectly" the anger of people "who found this unacceptable."
"Inviting these people does not mean that we agree with them. Quite the opposite," he defended in parliament. The State Secretary shared documents on his interaction with both the Federal Government and the Metropolis organisation.
In parliament, Smet was strongly rebuked by MPs. MR politician David Leistehr noted that the Metropolis organisation was simply an "NGO" and there was no obligation for him to create an invite, both for the Russians and Iranians. Leistehr even pointed out that the invite to the Iranian delegation had been handwritten, referring to "the honourable mayor of Tehran."
The Federal Government apparently even advised against the issuance of visas for the Iranian delegation, but Smet allegedly persisted in their invitation.
"Mr. Secretary of State, you have added indecency to irresponsibility. You received, in March, a negative opinion [from the Federal Government] for me, this would have sufficed amply," Leistehr said.
Smet admitted that it had "indeed been requested to allow a delegation of Tehran, at least at the administrative level." He claims that he would have rescinded the invitation of the delegation if he had received a refusal.
"The real question today is the following: Do we really truly want for brussels to be the capital of international diplomacy or not," Smet argued. He also highlighted the fact that Russian delegations participated in CGLU and Metropolis events in February in Barcelona.
Smet's response does not appear to have satisfied the Brussels Parliament, who have now launched a new hearing with the relevant Commission. Another hearing regarding the diplomatic affair is scheduled in the Federal Parliament, where Lahbib will also face tough questioning.
Both Smet and Lahbib are facing criticism from MPs across Belgium on social media. Theo Francken (N-VA) described Smet as “completely incompetent” and “shameful.”
Quelle hypocrisie de condamner les exactions commises par l’Iran sur sa population et par la Russie sur les Ukrainiens, pour ensuite inviter et accueillir en grde pompe les + précieux soutiens de ces régimes! Nous devons soutenir les victimes, pas accueillir leurs bourreaux! https://t.co/KNX6QzSoCX— Sophie Rohonyi (@SophieRohonyi) June 15, 2023
Meanwhile Christophe De Beukelaer (Les Engagés) stated that “despite the war in Ukraine, Bucha, and sanctions against Russia… Smet invited a Russian official to Brussels. All this was validated by Hadja Lahbib... These two ministers must answer for their actions.”
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Some 2,000 city officials were invited to the event in Brussels this week, including the mayor of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko virtually greeted guests and thanked participants for their solidarity.
The inclusion of the representative from Kazan is problematic in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Smet has been accused of “hypocrisy” by declaring solidarity with Ukraine while inviting the followers of aggressor regimes to official events in the Belgian capital.