Ms Lahbib travelled to Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula, via Russia to report on a theatre festival. At the time she was working for the Francophone broadcaster RTBF. The fact she had travelled to Crimea that Russia annexed following its occupation in 2014 and that she travelled via the Russian Federation, which is illegal under Ukrainian law, raised eyebrows here and questions in Ukraine.
When it emerged last week that the foreign minister’s trip was funded by the theatre festival that is closely linked to Russian President Putin’s daughter, criticism heightened.
Since the controversy broke the foreign minister had contented herself with a letter of support to Ukraine marking Ukrainian Statehood Day. Now Ms Lahbib has spoken with the Flemish daily Het Laatste Nieuws. She points out she travelled to Crimea a year ago in her capacity of a journalist and that this is work that in no way can be compared to that of a minister or politician. Today she is making different choices she says.
The foreign minister adds she has taken time to respond due to the priority she’s giving to her work at the foreign ministry and a close bereavement.
“I didn’t have time to respond to a polemic that only interests the Wetstraat bubble. Facts have been manipulated by somebody who didn’t have anything else to do this summer. This is a real shame. Playing politics against the backdrop of the present international tension in which diplomatic relations are important cannot be justified”.
Earlier Flemish nationalist floor leader Peter De Roover shared a video of Ms Lahbib’s report in which she spoke of her visit “to Russia”.
Ms Lahbib counters that she also spoke of Russia’s annexation of Crimea that hadn’t been recognised by the international community.
The foreign minister plans to visit Ukraine when conditions are right: “This isn’t something that can be improvised” she told press agency Belga.