Jim Armitage: Belarus has bitten off more than it can chew by reeling in this big fish

 

Global Outlook In most countries, you get arrested for operating a cartel. In Belarus, it seems, the opposite is the case. On Monday, the chief executive of Russia's fertiliser giant Uralkali, travelling to Minsk at the invitation of the prime minister, arrived only to find himself getting arrested at the airport. His detention came just weeks after he had pulled his company out of the potassium cartel it has operated with Belarus. A cartel that has artificially kept up prices of crop-boosting fertilisers for farmers the world over.

Now, a trade war looms large between the two countries.

Not that the Kremlin puts it in such terms, of course. Two days after the Russian's arrest, Moscow scientists coincidentally uncovered serious concerns about "falling quality standards" at Belarusian dairy farms. Then the Russian Transneft pipeline monopoly declared supplies of oil to Belarus would be cut next month due to essential "maintenance" work. Yesterday, Moscow banned Belarusian pork imports due to sudden concerns about African swine fever in its little neighbour's farms.

In the comical way that the Kremlin does so well, Moscow claims none of the events are connected to the arrest of Vladislav Baumgertner.

The Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has stood his ground. Instead of relenting and releasing the Russian executive as the pressure intensified, he upped the stakes, with his government hinting at a criminal investigation of Suleiman Kerimov, Uralkali's biggest shareholder.

It is highly unlikely Mr Kerimov will ever appear before a Minsk court. He is, after all, one of the richest men in the world and well connected internationally and in Russia.

While he hardly ever gives interviews, Mr Kerimov is no shrinking violet. You may remember him as the chap who nearly killed himself crashing his $650,000 (£419,000) Ferrari Enzo into a tree on Nice's Promenade des Anglais with a glamorous Russian TV presenter in the passenger seat. He has hosted parties starring Beyoncé and the late Amy Winehouse that make Sir Philip Green's soirées seem stingy affairs.

His typical Russian oligarch's love of football was such that he hired Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos to play for his Dagastani football team, Anzhi Makhachkala. He even bought Carlos a $3m Bugatti for his birthday. Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o followed, on a reported €60m (£51m) three-year contract. He has just joined Roman Abramovich's Chelsea.

Another fact about Mr Kerimov will not have been lost on the Belarus government. He is extremely well connected in the Kremlin. There is widespread speculation, reported in the Financial Times last year, that he and his team invest on behalf of the Russian government. He denies this, but it is no secret his wealth has been largely built up thanks to investments he made with state bank loans. That includes his holding in Uralkali.

The FT reported he was particularly close to Igor Shuvalov, the powerful first deputy prime minister. Meanwhile, the wife of the deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich has served on the boards of at least two of his companies. Little surprise then, that Mr Dvorkovich and Mr Shuvalov have been publicly critical on the Russian government's behalf this week of Belarus's behaviour.

To outsiders, it appears Belarus's eccentric president, dubbed by many as Europe's last dictator, is playing a game he cannot win. Belarus would collapse without Russian trade. Mr Kerimov's friends in the Kremlin seem to hold all the cards.

There are many observers who say Vladimir Putin's freedom to crush Belarus on this issue is constrained by his desire to woo another neighbour, Ukraine, to Russia's side. Ukraine is seeking an association agreement with the European Union including a free trade deal due to be signed in November. Mr Putin is desperate to stop that happening and wants instead to persuade Kiev to join his own customs bloc with Kazakhstan and Belarus. A major assault on trade with one of its so-called free trade partners is hardly likely to woo Ukraine to Moscow's side, goes the thinking.

Others suggest such concerns are wide of the mark. Stephen Blank, senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington says, as far as Ukraine goes, Mr Putin is not concerned about subtlety. He points out that, only a fortnight ago, Russia imposed intensive checks on all Ukrainian goods entering the country, effectively imposing a de facto ban. It was a clear threat against signing a deal with the EU. Moscow, says Mr Blank, will stop at nothing to keep former Soviet states under its yoke. "Russia is perfectly willing to start a conflict on this issue. Its fundamental objective is to undermine any effort by Belarus to conduct any form of independent foreign policy," he says.

If Mr Blank is right, Belarus, and its people, are in for a rough autumn.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Client Services Manager - Relationship Management - London

£30000 - £32000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller / Customer Service

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding business...

Guru Careers: In-House / Internal Recruiter

£25 - 28k + Bonus: Guru Careers: An In-house / Internal Recruiter is needed to...

Recruitment Genius: Tax Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Tax Assistant is required to join a leading ...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea