03/29/2022, 11.01
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Ukrainian invasion and wheat crisis worsen Lebanese drama

by Fady Noun

The military attack launched by the Kremlin has taken the country of the cedars, already the object of a tug-of-war between the US and Iran, by surprise. The government has ritually condemned the attack, but there are many differences and ambiguous positions, including that of Hezbollah. The impact on the price of grain and fuel. 74% of imported wheat comes from Ukraine. 

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army took Lebanon, like the rest of the world, by surprise. For Beirut, this aggression has complicated an already complex situation, given that the country of the cedars is in the midst of an election campaign and hostage to a permanent tug-of-war between the United States and Iran. The invasion has contributed to making a nation that needs stability and regional and international understanding even more fragile. 

Lebanese public institutions have taken to denouncing the Russian invasion more and more quickly, a principled position that Lebanon could not help but take, having itself 'suffered invasion and aggression against its sovereignty, its land and its people', as Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib explains. The latter had previously (it was 24 February) issued an official statement, in which he said that Lebanon 'condemns the invasion of Ukrainian lands and asked Russia to stop its military operations on the ground'. 

However, the publication of the communiqué caused internal tensions, with Head of State Michel Aoun backing down, contenting himself with launching an appeal "for conflict resolution through dialogue". These reservations prompted the foreign minister to clarify the matter and, in a statement, he assured that he had acted in agreement with Prime Minister Nagib Mikati and in contact with the president.

As if to confirm these remarks, on 2 March Beirut sided with the majority of states at the UN General Assembly, voting in favour of the resolution calling on Russia "to immediately cease the use of force against Ukraine". In the end, things seemed to settle down quickly, given the many financial issues at stake related to Lebanon's formal membership of the Western camp, combined with ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for debt restructuring.

Hezbollah's dissent

Hezbollah, which fights alongside the Russian army in Syria, has been vocal on the issue, claiming that the foreign minister's statement has been vetted for approval and "tweaked" by US Ambassador Elizabeth Shea to be firmer. However, its opposition remains tokenistic. So much so that its own circles have denied, for example, any commitment of Shiite militiamen alongside the Russian army in Ukraine, a rumour that had circulated in parallel with that announcing the formation of brigades of Syrian mercenaries to fight in Ukraine.

At the same time, the embassies of Moscow and Kiev became the protagonists of a small war of demonstrations. All this while diplomatic representatives of the EU and G7 countries formed a delegation that paid a solidarity visit to the Ukrainian embassy, while the latter managed to block the broadcasting of a television programme organised by a journalist close to Hezbollah.

In general, Lebanese public opinion is Iintently following the course of this war,  sensitive to the fact that the invasion of Ukraine seems to consecrate the triumph of the logic of force in international relations. This raises more than one concern among the Lebanese, who automatically transpose the issue to their relations with their large neighbour Syria, which has never renounced its 'historical' objectives towards Lebanon, an argument moreover used by Vladimir Putin towards Ukraine.

The fear of a (food) crisis

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has at the same time complicated Lebanon's economic situation, creating a problem in terms of grain and vegetable oil supplies, considering that since the explosion at the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020, the country can no longer count on the 120,000 tonnes of storage capacity in the port silos. It has also had an equally negative impact on fuel prices, which have soared on a global scale. This surge in costs will have a knock-on effect on the prices of goods and services, in turn triggering further inflation. 

The international NGO Mercy Corps warns: 'The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is exacerbating a humanitarian situation that was already disastrous in Lebanon, and risks causing further political destabilisation, undermining economic recovery and making many people dependent on humanitarian aid'.

The report also foresees an upturn in commodity prices, a fight against short-term hoarding of basic goods and black market activities, a gradual increase in import costs and a further reduction in the quality of essential services, such as electricity, internet and water supply. The Ukrainian conflict will have a negative impact on humanitarian aid sent to Lebanon, according to Mercy Corps, because it will put further pressure "on global budgets for humanitarian aid and development support". 

Wheat: 74% comes from Ukraine

On 24 March, the Ukrainian ambassador in Beirut, Ihor Ostash, took stock of the Russian invasion of his country and its repercussions in Lebanon. "The Russian invasion of Ukraine," he said, "will negatively affect the food supply in Lebanon". He then recalled that "according to Lebanese customs, 74% of the cereals imported by Lebanon come from Ukraine, as do 63% of imported oils".

In an attempt to instil reassurance, Lebanese Agriculture Minister Abbas Hajj Hassan said a week ago that 'there is no wheat crisis in Lebanon today', although prices may be 'a little higher' in view of a 'global crisis'. He added that his ministry is developing a national plan for the production, cultivation and storage of the grain, aimed at increasing production capacity to '30 or 40 per cent of the needs of the local market, while motivating farmers'. In addition, the Ministry of Economy is negotiating the purchase of 50 thousand tonnes of Indian wheat.

On another matter, the ambassador pointed out that about 800 of the 1,175 Lebanese students who were in Ukraine were repatriated via Bucharest and Warsaw, after being exposed to bombings and living for weeks in bomb shelters and subways". The diplomat went on to note that "today Russia, in a shameless manner, is offering Lebanese students in Ukraine scholarships to move to Russia".

In any case, the return of Lebanese students from the university city of Kharkiv has created major problems for those among them who do not want to lose their academic year, as well as issues relating to the equivalence of degrees, which National Education Minister Abbas Halabi is trying to resolve.

Then there is the issue of Ukrainians living in Lebanon, a number that varies between 8 and 10 thousand. Of these, between 2,500 and 3,000 have married Lebanese women. Considering children and husbands with dual nationality, the figure is also around 10,000.

Finally, on a religious level, both the Maronite Patriarch and the Sunni Mufti of the Republic have condemned the Russian invasion. On the other hand, the Patriarchate of Antioch of the Greek Orthodox, based in Syria, remains silent on this issue.

Moreover, the Patriarchate has not followed the Ecumenical Patriarch in its approach to recognising the autonomy of the autocephalous Church of Kiev. The approach of the Lebanese Catholic Churches was different. On the evening of 25 March, they fervently associated themselves with the penitential ceremony and the prayer of consecration of Russia, Ukraine and the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Lebanon itself is one of the countries dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin.

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