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23rd Jul 2017

EU diplomats: Slovenia put hotel deal before human rights

Fellow EU countries have blamed Slovenia for denigrating the rights of political prisoners in Belarus in order to protect a business deal on a luxury hotel in Minsk.

The country's foreign minister, Karl Erjavec, on Monday (27 February) in Brussels blocked the EU from adding the name of Belarus oligarch Yuriy Chizh to a new list of 21 jurists and policemen to be put under a visa ban and asset freeze.

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  • Photo from Kempinski website. The firm is proud of its luxury brand (Photo: kempinski.com)

His line was that the Union should hold more internal talks about the merit of economic sanctions.

"We aren't objecting to the sanctions as such. But there is only one businessman on the list and we want there to be general criteria why some businessmen are on the list and others are not," a Slovenian diplomat told this website.

Diplomats from other EU countries say Erjavec took the step to protect a business deal between Chizh and Slovenian firm Riko Group to build a five-star hotel for Swiss chain Kempinski in the Belarusian capital in 2013.

"Everybody knows that's why they did it. It sets a very bad precedent for the EU to take these kinds of decisions based on economic interests," one contact noted.

Another EU diplomatic source told EUobserver: "They even suggested that France put Chizh on the list to get revenge because a French firm lost the tender [on the hotel]. In fact, the French firm pulled out when it discovered that Chizh was involved."

He added: "On the one hand you have hunger strikes by political prisoners and on the other hand you have this luxury hotel ... It's not like the value of the contract would have had any impact on Slovenia's economy, so unless someone in the Slovenian government has close ties with this company [Riko Group], I just don't get it."

Riko Group noted in an email to this website the hotel project is part of two contracts with Triple worth €157 million.

Its spokeswoman, Polona Lovsin added that the firm did not ask Erjavec to block sanctions. "We informed them that there are rumours about the intentions of the EU ... We do not interfere in the profesional work of the bodies of the government, but we trust that they know what to do to be effective in protecting the interests of all Slovenian companies," she said.

A Kempinski spokeswoman added that the group "does not comment on or take any political position."

Meanwhile, Latvia, which has business ties with Chizh companies, also voiced concerns about putting him on the blacklist, but EUobserver understands it did not threaten to block the move.

For her part, EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton said on Monday that EU ministers will look again at the issue of Belarus economic sanctions in March.

This story was updated on 28 February, adding the Riko Group and Kempinski remarks

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