France: Slovenia got Belarus firm off the hook

23.03.12 @ 18:20

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - Slovenia flat-out denies getting a Belarusian company off the latest EU sanctions list for the sake of a few million euros. But the French foreign minister says it did.

  • Bildt (l): 'Well, there's always a deal.' Juppe (r): 'Slovenia ... asked for an exception' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU countries on Friday (23 March) blackballed two Belarusian oligarchs - Yuriy Chizh and Anatoly Ternavsky - 10 officials and 29 companies.

Speaking to press in Brussels after the meeting, France's Alain Juppe said most of Chizh's firms are on the register "except, it is true, with one small exception for one daughter company, because one of the member states, Slovenia, without naming names, asked for an exception."

The exception - Elite - has a €100-million-or-so contract with Slovenian firm Riko Group to build a luxury hotel in Minsk.

Elite-Riko caused a stink in February when Slovenia threatened to veto a whole tranche of Belarus sanctions if they included Chizh. It later agreed to designate 21 jurists and policemen, but - until now - Chizh stayed off the hook.

When asked in a separate press briefing on Friday if he cut a deal on Elite, Slovenian foreign minister Karl Erjavec repeated the line he used last month: "We were not in accord with these sanctions [in February] because on the list of economic sanctions there was only one person - Yuriy Chizh - and now we have two persons and for Slovenia this is right because we need to be systematic."

When asked if the Elite-Riko hotel project can go ahead under Friday's agreement, he said: "I don't know." When asked if he had spoken with Riko's CEO in the past two weeks, he said: "No."

The director of Erjavec's political department, Matej Marn, told this website that Slovenian diplomats at no point in low- or mid-level EU talks asked for Elite to get off. "It was an EEAS decision," he said, referring to the European External Action Service.

Diplomats from fellow EU countries have a different recollection of events.

One contact said: "It's not true. They are trying to whitewash the situation. But I don't have instructions from my minister to say it on the record." He added that Slovenia made its position clear in meetings of the so-called Coest diplomatic working group.

He noted that it "set a bad precedent" because Latvia, on the basis of the Elite exemption, also got two Belarusian companies which do business with Latvia off the register.

For his part, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt - unlike Juppe - did not want to rock the boat.

Asked by EUobserver if there was an Elite-Riko deal with Slovenia, he said: "Well, there's always a deal. Everything that we do in the EU is a deal. But I don't want to single out any specific countries on any specific issues."