A trip to Crimea by Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib when she was still working as a journalist is putting a strain on relations between Brussels and Kyiv, just two weeks after she was appointed to lead Belgium’s diplomacy.
Lahbib traveled to Crimea in July 2021 to shoot a documentary. She later told Belgian media she used a Russian visa for the trip. The peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, is recognized internationally as part of the Ukrainian territory.
Ukraine’s foreign affairs ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, reacted to the controversy on his Facebook page, stressing Kyiv’s stance on visiting Crimea through Russia: “Visiting the temporarily occupied Crimean peninsula is permitted only if you follow from the mainland of Ukraine. Entry from the territory of the Russian Federation is illegal,” he said.
Nikolenko added that Belgian and Ukrainian foreign ministries were in touch “through diplomatic channels in order to establish all the circumstances of the trip and make decisions regarding further bilateral contacts.”
On a more positive note, Nikolenko added that Ukraine welcomed Lahbib’s “assurances regarding further support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s armed aggression.”
The trip also sparked backlash online, where people piled on Lahbib’s Instagram pictures of the trip.
On its website, the Belgian Foreign Affairs Ministry clearly states that Belgium does not recognize the annexation of Crimea to Russia, and adds that Ukraine “does not accept” transit through Crimea from Russia. Critics say that the newly appointed minister breached Ukrainian law.
The N-VA, the Flemish nationalist party and main opposition party, denounced the trip and called for explanations from the minister. Peter De Roover, the party chair in federal parliament, pointed out to the fact that Lahbib covered the Global Values festival in Crimea, which was organized by Russian Seasons, an organization backed by the Russian government.
The foreign minister responded to De Roover on Twitter. “You may have missed when you searched my social media that I was a journalist before I became a minister,” she said, adding that the “trip was part of [her] journalist work.”
The feud comes just days after Lahbib and Ukrainian diplomat Natalia Anoshyna unveiled four new Ukraine-themed scenes at Mini-Europe — a tourist attraction in Brussels featuring miniature versions of European landmarks.
A spokesperson for Lahbib did not respond to POLITICO’s request for comment.