Hariri, Putin discuss bilateral ties, Syria, refugee crisis
Premier-designate says not worried about delay in Cabinet formation
BEIRUT: Less than a month since his reappointment to the premiership, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri sought Wednesday to reassure the Lebanese, saying he was not worried about a delay in the formation of a new government despite what he called the “ambitions” of political parties to grab key ministerial portfolios.
Hariri spoke to reporters after an hourlong meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin for talks centering on developments in Lebanon and the region, the Syrian refugee crisis and bilateral relations, including trade, according a statement released by Hariri’s media office.
Hariri arrived in Moscow shortly after midnight Wednesday to attend the opening of the FIFA World Cup along with other leaders. The Moscow trip, to be followed by
Hariri’s visit to Saudi Arabia to spend the Eid al-Fitr holiday later this week with his family and join Eid prayers in the holy city of Mecca, has put attempts to form a new government on hold until next week.
Hariri’s meeting with Putin came on the eve of the opening of the 2018 World Cup, which begins Thursday with a match between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Media reports suggested Hariri may meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman while in Moscow. Prince Mohammad is among the other world leaders invited to attend the World Cup’s opening match.
Asked what his purpose is behind taking his time in forming the government, Hariri said: “There is no purpose. We are at the end of the holy month of Ramadan and there is a holiday.
“I would have liked to form the government before Eid, but we all know that each of the political parties has ambitions [to obtain key ministries] and we are talking to everyone until we reach a solution. I am not worried about a delay in the formation of the government . ... We [parties] should think about productivity and not about how many ministers we can have.”
The Central News Agency quoted sources close to the Grand Serail, the prime minister’s headquarters, as saying that Hariri has so far been “satisfied with the progress of the formation efforts because he has not yet run into insurmountable problems or impossible conditions, but reasonable demands made by political forces during the formation of a government.”
In a bid to accelerate the Cabinet formation, Hariri presented to Aoun Monday a preliminary proposal to form a 30-member government representing all the political parties.
He outlined the Cabinet shares among the blocs with the largest representation based on the results of last month’s elections.
Hariri, who was designated on May 24 with a sweeping parliamentary majority to form a government for the third time, has pleaded with rival factions, competing for key ministerial posts, to lower their demands.
Hariri said his talks with Putin focused on the problem of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and their return to Syria.
“We talked about various issues concerning Lebanon, the region and bilateral relations. We also talked about the Syrian refugees and their return to Syria and Russia’s help in this regard, especially concerning Law 10. It was extended for one year but must be further clarified.
“The Syrian regime has to explain this issue better, so as not to suggest that the refugees in Lebanon are not entitled to return to Syria,” Hariri said.
“The rights of the Syrian refugees in their country must be permanent and no one should take them away. We spoke at length about this and the region’s affairs.”
Hariri and other Lebanese officials have criticized Syria’s controversial Law 10, which had previously given Syrians 30 days to register their private properties before they were seized by the state. The deadline was later extended to one year after global backlash.
Hariri’s remarks came as a public spat between Lebanon and the U.N. refugee agency deepened Wednesday as caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil kept up his criticism of the UNHCR, again accusing it of discouraging Syrian refugees from returning home.
Lebanon is home to almost a million Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR, or about a quarter of the country’s population, putting a huge strain on the country’s ailing economy and frail infrastructure.
At the beginning of the meeting in Moscow, which was also attended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Putin congratulated Hariri on his designation to form government, saying: “You have the task of forming the new government. We have to continue enhancing trade exchange between the two countries, especially as there is a shortage in this area, and we must make efforts to augment this exchange.
“We also have to intensify the work of the [Lebanon-Russia] Joint Governmental Committee.”
Hariri replied noting that “economic relations between Lebanon and Russia are below the required level, but there is some progress, and through follow-up we will make more progress, especially in the next government.”
Hariri last met Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi in September 2017.
Meanwhile, MP Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s newly elected 13-member bloc in Parliament, called for accelerating the formation of a new government, stressing that the waste of public funds cannot be halted without Cabinet’s formation.
As part of an ongoing war of words between the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces, LF chief Samir Geagea struck back at Bassil, the FPM leader, for consistently criticizing ministries held by LF ministers.
“If you want to know the motives behind Bassil’s attacks on the Lebanese Forces’ ministers, beginning with the health to the social affairs ministers, search for the electricity barges deal. Every time we harden our confrontation against the passing of deals, the level of campaigns against us rises,” Geagea told the Central News Agency.
At the beginning of the meeting, Putin congratulated Hariri on his designation to form government.