Wednesday

22nd Mar 2017

Lukashenko trying to outwit EU and Russia

Selling arms firms from yourself to yourself, labelling petrol as solvents then petrol again - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is trying to make a living while being squeezed by the EU and Russia.

Lawyers in the European External Action Service are wondering what to do about Belarusian oligarch Vladimir Peftiev's latest bid to avoid EU sanctions.

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  • Putin (l) in Minsk: 'The very fact of my first foreign visit to brotherly Belarus reflects the special nature of our relations' (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Peftiev - Lukashenko's friend and alleged bag-man - is on an EU blacklist along with one of his firms, Beltekh Holding, which owns arms trader Beltechexport. But this week he sold his controlling stake in the holding firm to one Dmitry Gurinovich.

Beltekh Holding says Gurinovich is an alumnus of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration and part of the Russian presidential personnel reserve - a pool of people eligible to work in the Russian leader's chancellery.

He does not show up in the published lists of either body, however.

An EU diplomat told this website that Gurinovich in fact "used to be a former advisor or aide of Peftiev or maybe he still is."

He added that the sale is an attempt to evade EU sanctions: "Formally, if the company does not belong to the sanctioned person any more, it should be delisted."

A contact in the Berlin-based institute, the German Marshall Fund, said the transaction means "Peftiev actually sold the company from itself to itself."

Peftiev and three of his firms, including Beltechexport, already have four ongoing lawsuits at the European Court of Justice disputing EU claims that they feed Lukashenko.

Another Lukashenko-linked oligarch, Yuriy Chizh, in March got one of his companies, Belneftegaz, off the EU blacklist after Latvia intervened on his side.

According to Belarusian Tribunal, an NGO based in The Hague, Belneftegaz is part of a family of firms involved in a Russian oil scam worth $880 million a year.

Belarus imports Russian oil at domestic Russian prices. But if it refines it and sells it to Europe it has to pay Russia a duty of between $300 and $500 a tonne. The arrangement does not cover solvents and thinners made using the oil, however.

The NGO says Belneftegaz exports petrol labelled as solvent to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Netherlands, where it is bought by offshore companies linked to the Belarusian regime, re-labelled as petrol, then sold again to EU companies.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Lukashenko on Thursday (31 May) in his first post-inauguration trip, he told media: "The very fact of my first foreign visit to brotherly Belarus reflects the special nature of our relations."

But in reality, Putin's embrace is more dangerous for Lukashenko than the EU's cold shoulder.

Moscow is trying to strongarm Minsk to fully implement a "state union" which would reduce Belarus to a de facto province of Russia and make Lukashenko one of Putin's regional governors.

Kremlin loans to Lukashenko have already seen it take control of his main strategic asset - the pipelines of Belarusian firm Beltransgaz, which pump Russian gas to Poland and Germany.

Belarusian Tribunal noted that "Russian authorities [are] perfectly aware" of the solvent scam "but for some unknown reason they have ignored it. It is possible the fact of oil smuggling could be used by the Kremlin against Lukashenko in future."

Investigation

Belarus: a look inside Europe's 'last dictatorship'

Lukashenko's foreign policy is defined by greed and fear. Meanwhile, beyond geopolitics, average people live in the shadow of the country's terrible 20th century history.

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