The case of Aleksandr Lapshin, a travel blogger based in Moscow with dual Russian-Israeli citizenship, shows how the barriers that were established as a result of the 1991 Soviet break-up create new possibilities for conflict.

Pictured: Aleksander Lapshin. Photo: Personal Archive 

One of the more fascinating stories to emerge from the former Soviet space in recent years is the recent case of 40-year-old Aleksander Lapshin, a travel blogger based in Moscow with dual Russian-Israeli citizenship.

The Lapshin case is a quintessential post-Soviet story. It is a drama that directly involves three former Soviet republics (Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia) and indirectly involves two others (Armenia and Ukraine). It also involves at least one self-proclaimed yet unrecognized post-Soviet entity (Nagorno-Karabakh) and a country (Israel) that, while never part of the Soviet Union, nonetheless has a large population of post-Soviet immigrants.

Overall, the Lapshin case highlights the connections that continue to exist among the peoples and countries across the former Soviet space. It also illustrates how the barriers that were established as a result of the 1991 Soviet break-up create new possibilities for conflict. At one time, the major cities in this drama (Baku, Moscow, and Minsk) were all part of a single state. Today, as capitals of separate states, they have become enmeshed in a complex international political dispute that touches on significant geopolitical, humanitarian, foreign policy, and identity questions.

The blogger, Baku, and Belarus

Lapshin visited 122 different countries. His popular blog Life Adventures recounts these various journeys, exhibiting Lapshin’s passion for off-beat sites and beautiful women. Nagorno-Karabakh was not the only unrecognized republic on former Soviet territory that he visited (he also traveled to Abkhazia and Transnistria). However, his visits there would prove to be among his most fateful.

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Lapshin visited the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh republic twice – once in 2011 and again in 2012. He subsequently wrote about his experiences on his blog. Because Azerbaijan views Nagorno-Karabakh as part of its internationally recognized territory, it argued that Lapshin entered Azerbaijan illegally and thus banned him from entering Azerbaijan.

Moreover, Azerbaijani authorities assert that Lapshin called for the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh in his blog posts. The relevant posts have been removed from the Lapshin blog, but, according to the BBC, one entry from April 2016 was reposted elsewhere online. In it, Lapshin asserted his neutrality in the dispute on Nagorno-Karabakh, but was nonetheless harshly critical of Azerbaijan’s government and media.

Despite the travel ban imposed by Baku, the intrepid Lapshin was not deterred. In 2016, he entered the territory of Azerbaijan anyway. In addition to his Russian and Israeli passports, Lapshin also had a Ukrainian passport, in which his name was spelled in a slightly different manner, thus allowing him to circumvent the new Azerbaijani travel restriction.

Incensed, Baku put out an international warrant for Lapshin’s arrest in December 2016. While on a visit to Minsk, the beleaguered blogger was arrested by Belarusian authorities. Azerbaijan asked Belarus to extradite him to Baku to face trial for improperly entering the country. Against strong objections from Russia, Minsk eventually did comply with Baku’s request and extradited Lapshin to Azerbaijan on Feb. 7.

“We detained him in accordance with Interpol’s decision and must hand him over to Azerbaijan in accordance with all laws and regulations,” asserted Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev personally thanked Lukashenko for extraditing the blogger. However, contrary to Lukashenko’s statement, the Belarusian Prosecutor General’s Office admitted that there was no Interpol warrant for Lapshin. If convicted on all charges, Lapshin could face up to eight years in an Azerbaijani prison.

International outcry

The Lapshin case has raised considerable protest from different quarters. His followers on Russian-language social media have organized in his support. His wife, Ekaterina, who now runs his blog, has remained vigil, expressing deep concern about her husband’s condition throughout the ordeal. Various human rights and activist groups in Armenia and throughout the Armenian diaspora have widely condemned Belarus, and have called for Lapshin’s freedom.

The government of Nagorno-Karabakh has likewise harshly condemned Belarus. A statement issued by the self-proclaimed republic’s Foreign Ministry criticized the extradition as “not only an expression of outright support for the policy of intimidating foreign citizens pursued by the Azerbaijani authorities, but also a flagrant violation of the fundamental rights to the freedom of movement and freedom of speech.” 

The extradition was likewise criticized by Armenian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Tigran Balayan who called the extradition a “severe violation” of human rights “that once again shows the deep gap between a dictatorship and a democracy.”

Political figures in Israel have also raised objections about the Lapshin case, most notably Israeli Member of Parliament Ksenia Svetlova of the center-left Zionist Union. She has personally been working for Lapshin’s release and even persuaded him to write a letter of apology to the Azerbaijani government, although this did little to change the situation. 

Svetlova has been especially critical of the silence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the matter. She contends that he and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman could be doing more on Lapshin’s behalf, given their close ties to Azerbaijan. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has reportedly been attempting to negotiate the release of Lapshin behind-the-scenes.

Protests from Moscow

Perhaps the most vocal objections to the Lapshin case were those from his mother country, Russia. In January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed the arrest Lapshin by Belarus. 

“Russia is opposed to the criminalization of visits by journalists or other people to this territory or other territories in different regions,” he emphasized.  “Moscow disagrees with the extradition to a third country of Russians detained abroad.”

Russia’s concern for the Lapshin case is not without good reason. First and foremost, there is the matter of Lapshin’s citizenship. Due to the fact that the case concerns a Russian citizen, it consequently concerns the Russian state. Secondly, there is the geopolitical dimension to the Lapshin situation. The case is related to a major conflict in the former Soviet Union (Nagorno-Karabakh) that Moscow ultimately wants to see resolved. Moscow feels that the extradition of Lapshin to Baku and any criminal proceedings against him will only increase the potential for conflict and instability in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Caucasus generally.  Given Moscow’s own security concerns in the Caucasus neighborhood, it seeks to avoid such a scenario at all costs.

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“The extradition of Lapshin will not promote a peaceful resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh, if we understand the resolution as one built by negotiations and compromise,” noted Caucasus analyst Sergey Markedonov.  “Russia ultimately wants to see such a resolution.”

Another geopolitical aspect of the Lapshin case from the Russian vantage point is what it reveals about the state of relations between Russia and Belarus. 

“Russia and Belarus are the closest allies in the post-Soviet space as seen in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Union State,” noted Markedonov.  “However, this case provoked a crisis in relations between Moscow and Minsk. Of course, this issue is not restricted to the Lapshin case, but the Lapshin case adds some additional intrigues to this problem. Moreover, it demonstrates that integration in the post-Soviet space is limited. It is stronger on paper than in reality because, in reality, all countries of the post-Soviet space prefer to pursue their own interests.”

When Lapshin was finally extradited by Belarus, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement expressing its “deep disappointment with this decision, which runs counter to the spirit of allied relations between Russia and Belarus.” 

However, it also stressed that “we are determined to take all necessary steps in the future to protect the legitimate rights and interests of the Russian national with a view to securing his speedy return to his family.” Today, Russian Embassy diplomat Denis Apashkin has already met with Lapshin in Baku. According to Apashkin, Lapshin has “no complaints about detention conditions and has already provided with a lawyer.”

“Moscow would prefer informal contacts and ties to resolve this situation,” argues Markedonov. “Of course, there is also the problem of Lapshin and the Russian state because Lapshin as a blogger was very critical of the Russian government. He said that Russian officials are completely corrupt and so on and so on. However, now, given the new circumstances, I think he will likely modify his perception a bit. The Russian Foreign Ministry declared its willingness to help him, though ultimately I think that informal ties or informal agreements will be used by Russia to change this situation.”

A troubling precedent

The Lapshin case is part of a broader trend by the Azerbaijani government in recent years to discourage travel to Nagorno-Karabakh and to declare that those who have traveled to the self-proclaimed republic as personae non gratae. In 2013, the disputed region saw two high-profile visitors. First of these was Spanish operatic soprano Montserrat Caballé. The second was the red-headed bombshell and former Russian spy Anna Chapman who visited Nagorno-Karabakh as part of a delegation of Russian journalists and public figures. 

Caballé was declared a persona non grata while Chapman was threatened with being labeled as such. The Lapshin case represents a shift in this policy. Instead of simply declaring individuals who visit Nagorno-Karabakh as personae non gratae, the Azerbaijani government now appears interested in prosecuting them as well.

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“Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has this infamous blacklist,” noted Markedonov, “In fact, even I am a member of this list. However, the Lapshin case represents a troubling precedent. I visited Belarus a couple of times previously and I have good contacts there. Maybe again I will be invited back to Minsk. However, if the Azerbaijani government decides to follow all suspected persons on their blacklist, I don’t know. Will they try to prosecute anybody who has visited Nagorno-Karabakh? Of course, Caballé is a celebrity and for Azerbaijan to go after her would be more risky than to go after Lapshin. For instance, I can’t imagine that Caballé will be arrested or transferred to the Azerbaijani government or prison. They can say that Lapshin is a very particular case. However, there is a precedent. I am not sure that a tougher policy wouldn’t be implemented.”

Markedonov also noted that such a precedent could pose a major problem to journalists, scholars, and human rights activists who are required to visit conflict zones as part of their work. 

“If this territory is disputed and you cannot go and see it, then it is a problem,” he maintained.  “Journalists, human rights activists, and scholars have a lot of interests in these territories. They travel to places like Donbas, Palestine, Northern Cyprus, and so on. We should strive for objective information about all these places.  Two, three, five opinions can give us a chance to make a more or less adequate portrait of the situation on-the-ground. It is absolutely necessary for peace-building. This is why this case concerning a specific person raises a lot of questions.”