Mr Hariri said he would support Arab team when asked why Lebanese politicians back Brazil
Lebanon's Hariri talks refugees, trade with Putin on eve of World Cup
Lebanon’s prime minister-designate arrived in Moscow on Wednesday where he held long talks on trade, refugee returns, regional development and the World Cup with Russian President Vladimir Putin and top Russian officials.
Lebanon’s Saad Hariri told reporters the pair had talked at length about the assistance Russia can provide on the issue of returning refugees to Syria.
Lebanon hosts nearly one million registered refugees but officials place the true figure at upwards of 1.5 million.
He said that they also discussed Syria’s controversial Law 10, a new decree regarding property ownership that many rights groups and refugees have claimed will leave them unable to return home.
Mr Hariri told reporters after the meeting that the Russian president had said the bill, which previously gave Syrians just 30 days to register their private properties before they were seized by the state, was not intended to force refugees out of their country.
“The rights of Syrian refugees in their country must be permanent and must not be taken away…The Syrian regime must better explain the issue so as not to suggest that refugees in Lebanon are not entailed to return to Syria,” said Mr Hariri, relaying Mr Putin’s comments in the meeting.
It added that the two leaders discussed the issue of refugee returns for some time. Russia is a major political and military backer of Damascus, having deployed ground troops and significant air power to assist the regime of President Bashar Assad to recapture swathes of territory lost in the seven-year civil war.
Alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the pair also discussed economic relations between the two countries. Mr Putin said the “positive trend” of 17 per cent growth in Lebanese-Russian trade should be maintained and the "unexpected” and “worrisome" decline in the first quarter of this year should not deter efforts, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency reported.
"We have to continue to promote trade and exchange between the two countries, especially as there is a shortage in this area,” the NNA quoted Mr Putin as saying. He said that a joint economic committee established to promote commercial ties should intensify its work to promote this.
Mr Hariri also congratulated Mr Putin on hosting the World Cup, set to start with an opening game between Saudi Arabia and Russia on Thursday. The Lebanese prime minister – also a citizen of Saudi Arabia – is expected to accompany Mr Putin to the game. Mr Hariri will also attend the opening ceremony.
Asked about the game by reporters, Mr Hariri said: "Tomorrow, Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt will be among the teams that have chances and God willing we want them to win”.
Asked about reports that Lebanon’s three most senior officials – president Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Mr Hariri – were all supporting Brazil in the World Cup, the prime minister-designate said he had been a supporter of the South American team since he was young but added that if an Arab team was playing he would definitely support them instead.
Televised footage of Mr Hariri’s arrival in Moscow showed an unexpected scene for a state visit with the Lebanese prime minister-designate being welcomed not by a dignitary but by a large sporty dog – the mascot of the 2018 World Cup. A smiling Mr Hariri was seen hugging the dog before moving on to greet other officials who had welcomed him to Russia.
Asked about Lebanese developments as he leads the negotiations on forming the next government, Mr Hariri said that he was hoping to finish the Eid holiday over the weekend before the negotiating demands for cabinet posts from various parties were finalized.
There was no indication the two leaders had discussed military cooperation or weapons contracts just months after Lebanese defence minister Yaacoub Sarraf was set to bring to cabinet a deal brokered with Moscow. Mr Sarraf’s proposal was withdrawn from the cabinet agenda at the last minute after concerns from Western backers of Lebanon’s security services.