The presidents of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland refused to take part in a joint photo session at the UN climate summit COP28 on Friday, because Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko also posed for it. Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas did not join this boycott.
"It would be hypocritical to stand shoulder to shoulder with the leader of a country that has become a staging ground for Russia's aggression against Ukraine and discuss the future of the world and climate change as if nothing had happened," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said in a statement.
"The Belarusian regime is contributing to the destruction of the world's future and, together with Russia, is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine – from the loss of human lives to the catastrophic impact on the environment," he added.
"This is called a family photo. Lukashenko is not part of the family we want to belong to," the president said.
Nauseda said that it would be cynical to show unity with people who do not respect democratic rights or the rule of law and, most importantly, who are not committed to achieving environmental objectives, as the head of state said in a video published by the Lithuanian presidential office.
Nausėda's boycott of a joint photo session at the COP28 world leaders' meeting in Dubai.was joined by Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs and Polish President Andrzej Duda.
The Belarusian leader was condemned for the crackdown on the opposition and the erosion of democratic freedoms. His regime was also accused of orchestrating a migrant influx into Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, which the countries called a "hybrid attack."
Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas took part in the photo-shoot, so she is on the same photograph with the Belarusian leader.
Nausėda is scheduled to deliver a speech at the COP28 later on Friday. On the sidelines of the climate conference, he will also hold bilateral meetings with other heads of state.
Kallas was in Dubai December 1-2 for COP28 and delivered a statement focusing on Estonia's climate targets, participate in panel discussions and side events, and hold bilateral meetings.
Estonia also organized its own expo pavilion at COP28, for the first time ever, which the prime minister also opened. It showcases Estonia's digital and green companies, and highlights ways that small countries can, it is argued, provide solutions on climate neutrality and the green transition.
Government Office: Prime minister had not spotted Lukashenko's arrival
Responding to the report Friday, the Estonian Government Office's communications department said that the prime minister had had no intention of appearing in a group photo in which the Belarusian leader also featured.
Given the logistical complexities of such large-scale events, the prime minister, who as a head of government was seated by COP28 organizers towards the back of the photo, had not notice the last-minute inclusion of Lukashenko, who, as a head of state, took a more prominent place in the front row, and next to Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A government spokesperson said: "The leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland had opted not to appear in the family photo if it transpired that Alexander Lukashenko was also taking part in the shoot."
The leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland spotted Lukashenko and left the scene – in this case heads of state were present and, occupying a more prominent position, they were able to observe the Belarusian leader's arrival and so made good their departure from the "school photo," before the photographer started snapping.
"The shoot was taken as a large group and there was, at first, no Lukashenko present," the spokesperson went on.
"Once the heads of state and of government were already lined up for the photo, the Belarusian president also appeared.
"The Prime Minister of Estonia, among about 150 leaders, did not spot Lukashenko's arrival from the back row, nor the departure of his colleagues, and inadvertently remained in the photo," the statement added.
The government office said that Kallas had already canceled her participation in a Global Stocktaking event, after being made aware that Lukashenko was also taking part.
"The Prime Minister of Estonia is attending the COP28 climate conference to discuss climate change mitigation, which requires a joint effort worldwide. The fact that a facilitator of Russian aggression is given a platform at such an event also distracts attention from the pressing climate matters. The fact that the prime minister inadvertently remained in the same photo as the aggressor in no way alters Estonia's foreign policy and positions and stance on Belarus," the government office added.
ERR reports that footage of the joint photo session showed Lukashenko arriving in the area set aside for the portrait no later than 10 minutes before the shutter fell.
The prime minister was seen to be engaged in conversation with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for around four minutes, ahead of the photo being taken. The pair appeared to continue that chat after the photo session had ended.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include the comment from the government office.
Editor: Mark Gerassimenko, Kristina Kersa, Andrew Whyte