EU joins the International Accountability Platform for Belarus
Europe’s oldest dictatorship could be living its last moments. Since the contested election in August, unprecedented mass protests have been taking place across the country. Brussels and Washington, who no longer recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate president, have imposed sanctions against Lukashenko and his allies, and more could be on the way.
Last month, the EU announced its third set of sanctions. This time, sanctions were meant to target those that provide direct or indirect financial support to the Lukashenko regime, thus restricting those that have enabled and prolonged the violence that has spread across the country. This new round of sanctions from Brussels on Belarus is likely to lead many Belarusians to look for opportunities to offload assets onto proxies so as to maintain some influence over their corporate holdings, or to sell them to foreign parties to avoid bankruptcy.
Moscow, one of Lukashenko’s last allies, has assured Minsk of its continued political and financial support. This kind of support rarely comes without strings attached. Some suggest that business interests close to the Kremlin are already making moves to acquire an increased share in Belarus’ important state-owned enterprises.
The West should be under no illusion that measures designed to end Lukashenko’s 26-year reign doesn’t mean the end of Moscow’s influence in Belarus. Regardless of what happens to Lukashenko, Russia has a future-proof plan to maintain, and even expand, its influence in the country.
Russia’s economic domination of Belarus is nothing new. Russian energy giants own strategically important pipelines that transit Belarus to deliver Russian gas to Poland and Germany, and Russia owns a 42.5% stake in Belarus’ giant Mozyr oil-processing facility via Slavneft, which is currently controlled by Rosneft and Gazpromneft.
Months of strikes alongside the pro-democracy protests have brought many of the country’s most prominent state-owned industrial enterprises to the brink of collapse. In order to create the economic conditions that will facilitate the takeover of major Belarusian companies, several Russian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin have been supporting the protests, awaiting the opportunity to take control. In the fertilizer industry, Belarus-born Russian oligarch Dmitry Mazepin is already positioning himself to take over the state fertilizer producer, Belaruskali.
Through his companies Uralchem and Uralkali he controls a significant portion of the global fertilizer market, and continues to inch towards monopolizing the market by illegally taking over rival company TogliattiAzot. Mazepin has even been supporting strike actions and student protestors, promising to pay for their studies in Russia.
Such moves would not happen if they weren’t authorized and even encouraged by the Kremlin and its proxies. Mazepin is close to individuals sanctioned by the US and the EU since 2018 for their ties to the Kremlin. He is also close to members of the Belarusian government and has been keen to get involved in Belarusian politics through the creation of a “Committee for the Salvation of Belarus” bringing together Belarusian and Russian executives in effort to promote economic reform and political reconciliation in the country aligned with Russian interests. His involvement in Belarusian affairs has even seen his company Uralkali gain from the strike protests at Belaruskali, which government officials state was the work of “external forces”.
Economic sanctions can be effective and discourage state abuse of power , but if they create a spill over effect where assets are pushed into Russia’s orbit, and conditions are made ideal for corporate raiders like Mazepin, this won’t help build the Belarus of tomorrow. With Russian oligarchs lined up to profit from sanctions on Belarusian corporate interests, crony privatizations and economic despair, there is little hope that the departure of Lukashenko will result in the creation of a democracy and a market economy in the country. It would be the West’s loss, and more importantly, that of the Belarusian people, who have so bravely fought for their freedom.