“Potash conflict”: Minsk wins on the information front but suffers financial losses

April 22, 2016 18:37

Arrested in Minsk, Uralkali CEO Vladislav Baumgertner remains in the KGB detention center in Belarus.

Belarus’ secret services will benefit the most from the potash conflict, as well as Uralkali and those who want to consolidate a large batch of Uralkali’s shares. Most likely, Belarus will bear all the costs of the redistribution of assets and costs between global potash market players and among the ruling groups in Russia.

Last week, the price of potash fertilizers continued to decline, falling to USD 320 per ton. However there were no major transactions: buyers are waiting for a bigger slump in prices. At least a few greenfield projects to develop potash deposits have been suspended (Chile, Canada). In other words, Uralkali’s strategy announced at the time of the breakup with the Belarusian Potash Company (BPC), “volumes first, prices next”, has become a reality. Provided that Uralkali’s production costs are the lowest, implementation of the strategy should result in Uralkali gaining a greater share in the global potash market, i.e. it will improve the company’s positions in the long run.

Meanwhile, in the short and medium term, Uralkali’s position is deteriorating: its shares continued devaluing when Baumgertner was left in custody. The company’s reloans, the charges against its main owner, Mr. Kerimov, brought by Belarus, as well as the information about Kerimov selling stars from his football club, have affected Uralkali’s shares depreciation. This creates opportunities for Kerimov or another owner (for example, Sechin) to consolidate a large Uralkali stake. .

All in all, Uralkali’s strategy has been fairly successful, but it may not be Kerimov who will benefit from its outcomes.

Last week, Alexander Lukashenko signed two decrees, one of which established the JSC (instead of CJSC) Belarusian Potash Company. The company will take over the exclusive right to sell Belarusian potash fertilizers. The second decree released Belaruskali from potash export duty payments to the budget. Currently it is not clear how the ‘new’ BPC will be managed, but since there was no information about relieving Mr Vakulchik fromhis duties to supervise the Belarusian potash industry, most likely, the main beneficiaries from the potash market re-division in Belarus will be the power structures (‘Viktor Lukashenko’s group’). In the meantime, Belaruskali has suffered losses due to falling potash prices. Baumgertner’s arrest has secured a downward trend in prices on the potash market, which may result in losses for Belarus (and Belaruskali) – of up to USD 500 million a year. It also creates additional uncertainty regarding the repayment of a USD 1 billion loan, issued to Belaruskali in 2011 and prolonged in 2012 by Russia’s Sberbank (which was used by the Belarus’ National Bank to replenish its foreign exchange reserves).

Belarus failed in its negotiations over Russian oil supply to Belarus in Q4 2013. If Russia insists on its decision to reduce oil supply via pipelines, Belarus’ oil supply will, de facto, be reduced by 40% by the year-end. Other threats, among them relating to Belarus’s dairy supply to Russia, have been postponed for a week. These measures, if implemented simultaneously, may leave Belarus without USD 200- 300 million in export revenues per month. In addition, the way things are currently developing, Belarus may lose the opportunity to sign an oil supply contract for 2014 and agreements will be signed quarterly, which will strengthen Belarus’ dependence on the Kremlin’s favours.

However, these threats may not become a reality. Potentially, Baumgertner’s lawyers may dare to ask to release their client on bail if he pays all the damages claimed by Belarus (about USD 100 million). If a compromise is reached, Belarus’ losses will be limited to the reduced value of potash exports volume.

Nevertheless, Belarus receives information bonuses in any case. If the conflict deteriorates, the inevitable devaluation can be attributed to Russia. If a compromise is achieved, Belarus will regain Russia’s regular ‘support’ and will present it as her victory in the confrontation.

Thus, Belarus’ and Belaruskali’s export earnings will fall in any case, but the economic difficulties can be attributed to Russian oligarchs.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.