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
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
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

1st Line Support Technician / Application Support

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider of web based m...

Team Secretary - (Client Development/Sales Team) - Wimbledon

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Secretary (Sales Team Support) - Mat...

Accountant / Assistant Management Accountant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an Assistant Management Ac...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices