Belarus freezes petrochemical industry privatisation
The Belarusian authorities have launched an anti-corruption campaign in the petrochemical industry in order to delay privatisation that would work in favour of Russian business. With no other means to stave off pressure from the Kremlin to privatise, the Belarusian authorities have resorted to old tricks to delay the process – launching a criminal investigation against the industry’s top managers and putting forward unacceptable conditions for the sales of assets. The Belarusian authorities may recycle this approach when dealing with other companies from the Russo-Belarusian list of joint integration projects.
The law enforcement officers launched a criminal investigation and arrested the Deputy Director General and several other ‘Naftan’ top-managers, as well as other top managers in the industry.
This is not the first criminal case against the petrochemical industry’s senior managers in recent times. In early July, the media reported the arrest of Ivan Zhilin, “Belneftekhim” Head for abuse of power. While the law enforcement agencies did not confirm this information, at a meeting on improving anti-corruption legislation President Lukashenko talked about the former “Belneftekhim” Head: “If a person compensates for the damage, he is not so terribly corrupt. It is a bad thing that he caused a great damage to the state. Do not grab him and drag behind bars once he has compensated”.
Interestingly, “Naftan” is included in the list of joint Russo-Belarusian integration projects envisaging assets privatisation. However, in Q1 2014 ‘Naftan’, leading profit maker in Belarus, continued to slip down the ranks of Belarus’ most profitable joint stock companies, and landed in fifth place in terms of net profits.
An unprofitable enterprise will mean that Belarus’ negotiating position will be more vulnerable if Russia decides to increase pressure on Belarus to speed up privatising the refineries Russian counterparts had sought to privatise ‘Naftan’ for over 15 years, to no avail. However, in early 2013, the Belarusian government was prompted to include the company on the list of Russo-Belarusian integration projects.
Recently, the Kremlin has put forward clearer conditions for Belarus to receive Russia’s financial aid – to implement the agreed privatisation plans, which include large state assets. For example, Belarus still has not received the sixth and final tranche from the EurAsEC Anti-Crisis Fund, which was conditioned by the privatisation of state assets.
‘Naftan’ is one of two oil refineries in Belarus where the state has a 99.83% share in authorized capital. This contrasts with the Mozyr refinery, almost half of which is owned by Russian companies. On average, ‘Naftan’ processes about 50% of oil supplied to Belarus by Russia– 10 million tons. ‘Naftan’ mainly works with two Russian companies – ‘Rosneft’ and ‘Surgutneftegas’. Russian experts consider ‘Rosneft’ and ‘Lukoil’ to be the main competitors for this Belarusian refinery.
The dismissal of the former Russian citizen Ivan Zilin from managing the ‘Belkneftekhim’ concern (in 2009-2011 he headed JSC ‘Grodno Azot’) may also be associated with an attempt to disrupt the privatisation deadlines for Belarus’ petrochemical assets.
It is worth noting that the sales of the blocking stake (25% + 1 share) in ‘Grodno Azot’, planned for July, did not take place. But in May 2014 First Deputy Prime Minister, Vladimir Semashko, said that four Russian companies were interested in buying stakes in JSC ‘Grodno Azot’: ‘Rosneft’, ‘Gazprom’, ‘EuroChem’ and “an enterprise from the Urals”. Belarus put forward fairly stiff conditions for the sale of the enterprise, which were unacceptable for Russian companies.
The Belarusian government will continue attempts to stave off pressure from the Kremlin to privatise by creating technical difficulties for the transfer of Belarus’ assets to Russian business.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.