Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko strongly denied siding with Azerbaijan on Tuesday as he sought to end a bitter row with Armenia sparked by the arrest in Belarus of a Russian-Israeli blogger who has repeatedly visited Nagorno-Karabakh.
“We absolutely understand the policies pursued by Armenia’s current and former leaderships,” Lukashenko told Armenia’s outgoing ambassador in Minsk, Armen Khachatrian.
“There are acute issues between Armenians and Belarusians,” he said. “Say Nagorno-Karabakh. I’ll tell you frankly: it’s not our issue, it’s not my issue. We have nothing to do there. There are parties to the conflict which must sort it out.”
The 40-year-old blogger, Alexander Lapshin, was detained in Minsk in December 2016 on an Azerbaijani arrest warrant related to his 2011 and 2012 trips to Karabakh. He stands accused of illegally entering “occupied territories” of Azerbaijan and making “public appeals against the state.” The Belarusian authorities extradited Lapshin to Azerbaijan in early February, prompting criticism from Russia and human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry condemned the extradition as a “gross violation of human rights” and implicitly branded Belarus a “dictatorship.” Senior pro-government lawmakers in Yerevan launched even more scathing attacks on Lukashenko. Armenia’s government also cancelled a senior law-enforcement official’s visit to Minsk.
Belarus’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the furious Armenian reaction. Both Armenia and Belarus are members of two Russian-led alliances of ex-Soviet states.
Lukashenko mentioned the Lapshin case at his farewell meeting with Khachatrian. In contrast to his past statements, he seemed to distance himself from the blogger’s arrest.
“I wonder why he was detained here,” the longtime president said in remarks publicized by his office. “He should have gone anywhere he wanted. We created a problem for ourselves, to be honest.”
At the same time, Lukashenko defended the extradition. “To whom did we have to hand him over? To those who issued an arrest warrant for him,” he said.
Lukashenko went on to blame Russia, Israel and Ukraine, saying that none of them wanted to “take” Lapshin. “They started playing that card only afterwards,” he said.
Lapshin holds Russian, Israeli and Ukrainian citizenships. Moscow repeatedly called for his release before his extradition.
The blogger was detained two weeks after Lukashenko visited Azerbaijan and received a top state award from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Lukashenko publicly pledged to “work hard” to justify the Order of Heydar Aliyev.
The day after Lapshin was flown to Baku, Aliyev telephoned his Belarusian counterpart to thank him for his “just position and resolute steps” on the issue. He called the blogger’s extradition a manifestation of “friendship and strategic partnership between Belarus and Azerbaijan.”
Years before his arrest, Lapshin was placed on an official Azerbaijani blacklist of several hundred non-Armenian foreigners who have visited Karabakh without Baku’s permission. Nevertheless, he was able to travel to Azerbaijan in June 2016 and post a series of detailed entries on his Russian-language travel blog.
In particular, Lapshin suggested that the Azerbaijani authorities have squandered their massive oil revenues. “Despite 25 years of oil bonanza, the country is hardly different from neighboring Armenia and Georgia in terms of socioeconomic development,” he wrote.