Belarus' extradition of Russian blogger to Azerbaijan strains ties with Kremlin

By bne IntelliNews February 9, 2017

Belarus on February 7 extradited Russian blogger Aleksandr Lapshin to Azerbaijan, where he will be tried for visiting the Azerbaijani breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2011 and 2012 and for advocating its independence on his blog.

In Azerbaijan, it is considered a criminal offence to visit the region, which is de facto independent but relies on Armenia for financial and military support. Furthermore, Baku blacklists all foreigners that visit the region, banning them from visiting mainland Azerbaijan. The list of blacklisted people includes foreign politicians and journalists, and even celebrities like opera singer Montserrat Caballe.

However, this is the first time that a foreign national has become subject to Azerbaijan's idiosyncratic policies, which only have jurisdiction inside the country. Azerbaijan lobbied Minsk, a city that blogger Lapshin was visiting, in order to obtain his extradition. On February 8, after he had been sent to Baku, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, to thank him.

Russia, however, has decried the detention of its citizen. In a statement issued by its foreign ministry on February 8, the Kremlin said that it took issue with the detention of Russian citizens and their extradition to third countries. Furthermore, in December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov objected to the criminalisation of visits to Nagorno-Karabakh and other contested territories.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists in January called for Minsk to "unconditionally" release Lapshin rather than extradite him. 

Together with France and the US, Russia is one of three international mediators overseeing peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Kremlin has played an instrumental role in brokering a ceasefire since violence escalated in April 2016. Furthermore, relations between Russia and Azerbaijan had been improving in recent years following decades of scepticism over Russia's backing of Armenia in the conflict.

Lapshin is also an Israeli citizen, and Israel is a close ally of Azerbaijan's thanks to the two countries' sizeable trade in arms and oil and gas.

Lapshin's extradition has taken place at a time when ties between Belarus and Russia ties are tense. There is even speculation that Belarus will exit the Kremlin-run economic bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Furthermore, the incident shows that Belarus treasures its relations with Azerbaijan more than those with fellow EEU member Armenia.

In response to Lapshin's extradition, Armenia asked that Belarus be ousted from Russia-led security organisation Collective Treaty Security Organisation (CSTO).

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani media celebrated the "justice" that has been served through Lapshin's extradition to Baku in numerous editorials published on February 7 and 8. 

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