|Date: Mar 28, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Moscow set to step up efforts on refugee returns|
|Timour Azhari| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: Russia will step up its role in facilitating the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon after a meeting between President Michel Aoun and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Baabda Palace source told The Daily Star Wednesday.
“This is the most important outcome - there will be an escalation from the Russians in supporting the refugee return initiative from all sides,” the source said, speaking a day after the two heads of state held talks in Moscow.
General Security has since last July been organizing voluntary returns of Syrian refugees.
The source said Russia had committed to working with Syria to provide the conditions to achieve more refugee returns and secure the basic supplies that would encourage refugees to head back, including shelters and mattresses.
He said that Aoun and Putin had agreed to “a very high degree,” on a host of other issues - including expanded economic cooperation and investments and increased tourism - especially of a religious nature. “They are also very interested in oil and gas extraction and all the projects the Energy Ministry is undertaking,” the source added.
Russian company Novatek is part of a consortium set to begin maritime oil and gas exploration later this year. Rosneft, another Russian company, was in January awarded a 20-year contract to operate oil and gas installations in the northern city of Tripoli.
The two countries laid down commitments reached during Aoun’s two-day visit to Moscow in a 15-point joint statement released late Tuesday night that touched on bilateral and regional issues.
Aoun and Putin affirmed their determination to “intensify political dialogue between Russia and Lebanon,” the statement said.
It also called for “active tripartite coordination between Lebanon, Syria and Russia” to facilitate refugee returns, while Putin “stressed Russia’s readiness to deal with Lebanon in the reconstruction of Syria.”
On trade, “the Russian side stressed that the strategic objective is to reach a trade exchange of more than $1 billion annually,” the statement said.
Extracting Lebanon’s potential oil and gas resources has been a high priority for many politicians, including Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who broached the related topic of Lebanon’s southern maritime border with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his recent visit to Beirut.
Aoun left for Russia soon after Pompeo departed Beirut.
While Lebanon had a big week in international relations, the country’s internal affairs are lagging behind. Lebanon will enter April without having even begun study on the 2019 draft state budget, which Prime Minister Saad Hariri has committed to having ratified by Parliament before the end of May. Compounding the slow pace of government work, a Cabinet session scheduled for Thursday was postponed until Hariri returns from Paris, where he is recovering from heart surgery.Foreign heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi, have phoned Hariri to wish him a speedy recovery.
Hariri’s absence means Cabinet will also miss a one-week deadline set last Thursday to study and endorse a new electricity plan that aims to reduce expenditure in the crippled electricity sector, which is hemorrhaging state funds. The government committed in its policy statement to reforming the power sector and reducing the state budget deficit-to-GDP ratio by 1 percentage point this year.
Speaker Nabih Berri also canceled a Parliament Q&A and Cabinet oversight session that was set for Friday, waiting for Hariri’s return.
MPs quoted Berri as saying during a weekly meeting with lawmakers Wednesday that he had called Aoun and told him the endorsement of a budget was the “first, second and 10th priority.”
If Lebanon does not lower its budget deficit-to-GDP ratio by the 1 percentage point it committed to, “the country will not be in a good position,” Berri said. He also dismissed Pompeo’s recent visit as “harmonious with the Israeli position regarding maritime borders or Hezbollah. ... And it won’t be long before the Lebanese people forget it.”
“Nothing changed or will change. U.S. Secretary Mike Pompeo did not give Lebanon anything. He also did not take anything from Lebanon except for the statement he brought with him,” Berri said, according to media reports.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea Wednesday also played down the effect of Pompeo’s visit, saying it had brought “nothing new” regarding local positions on the “confiscation of Lebanon’s strategic decision.”
In comments made during an interview with LF-affiliated Radio Free Lebanon, Geagea also reiterated that he believed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s refusal to welcome refugees back to their country was the main factor keeping them away. “I don’t think that reconstruction has anything to do with the return, because the Syrian refugee who lives in a tent in Lebanon prefers to be in a tent beside their destroyed home in Syria,” he said.
Also commenting on the refugee issue, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said during a meeting with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis that refugees would head to Europe as a “first destination” if they could not have a decent life in Syria. Bassil was on an official visit to the Czech Republic, where he discussed ways to encourage refugee returns in addition to avenues for expanding bilateral economic ties.
Bassil later during a news conference applauded the Czech Republic’s past refusal to accept a European Union proposal for refugee distribution quotas, alongside Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
“I would like this attitude to be an inspiration for Lebanon ... the national interest prevails over any other interest, and in this case Lebanon’s key national interest is the return of Syrian refugees to their country,” he said.
Bassil had also participated in talks in Moscow. The foreign minister and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov raised a joint proposal to have Lebanon participate as an observer nation in the upcoming Astana summit to settle the Syrian crisis in April.