Slovenia shields Belarus oligarch from EU blacklist
Yuri Chizh, a big-time bankroller of Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, could get off the hook after Slovenia stalled the latest round of EU sanctions, prompting concern it is putting petty commercial interests before the welfare of political prisoners.
Ljubljana raised its objections at the 11th hour in talks in Brussels this week ahead of an EU foreign ministers' meeting on Monday (27 February), which was due to rubber stamp the decision.
A spokesman for the Slovenian representation in Brussels on Friday denied that it has vetoed the move and said other countries also expressed reservations.
"There is no veto, negotiations are still ongoing. We cannot comment on it at this stage. A decision will be taken on Monday during the foreign affairs ministers' meeting", Uros Mahkovec told this website.
A diplomat from a pro-sanctions EU country said Slovenia's official line is that blacklisting Chizh would allow Russia to muscle in on public tenders in Belarus, harming free market competition.
The source added the real reason is more likely that Slovenian construction firm Riko Group recently won bids for real estate projects with Chizh conglomerate Triple, however.
Slovenia had initially lobbied to get Chizh's name off the new EU list. But in the end it blocked the whole package of 30-or-so of names - most of them officials involved in the jailing and mistreatment of opposition activists - because it could not get its way.
"The idea that there is any kind of free market in Belarus is a joke - everybody knows that the regime controls all the commercial activity in the country. This threatens to undermine EU credibility at a time when Lukashenko routinely mocks all our attempts to exert pressure on him," the diplomat said.
Chizh, a 48-year-old businessman from Soboli, in the Brest region of Belarus, is a close associate and regular hockey partner of Lukashenko known to EU officials as one of his "bag-men".
His Triple group of companies is involved in construction, leisure centres, restaurants, supermarkets, tourism, logistics and petroleum products. It also owns an Audi car dealership. It has extensive business links with Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, making it vulnerable to an EU ban.
Belarusian opposition sources say Riko Group is to help build Triple's €57 million Kempinski hotel and has two separate contracts worth €54 million with state energy firm Minskenergo for electricity substations. It has been active in Belarus since 2000 and in 2004 invited Lukashenko himself to spend a few days at a Slovenian ski resort.
Speaking to EUobserver from the Czech Republic on Thursday, opposition activist Ales Michalevic, who fled Belarus last March, described what happened to him during his two months in prison.
"They accused me of working for Polish, American or German intelligence. I had no access to my lawyer. I was beaten - they twisted my hands and beat me all over my body. I was made to sit in stress positions. They kept bright lights on at night in my cell and forbade me to cover my eyes. They let me go only when I signed an agreement to act as an agent for the KGB [the state security service]," he said.
Asked if he believes EU sanctions have an impact on Lukashenko, he said: "Yes. Definitely. He talks about them all the time and people who are already on the EU list are doing everything they can to get off it."
Belarus currently holds about 12 more political prisoners.
The EU sanctions are designed to free the inmates and to get clemency for two men - Uladzislau Kavalyou and Dzmitry Kanavalau - awaiting the death penalty for a bombing on the Minsk metro last year. Campaigners say they were convicted on shaky evidence, including forced confessions obtained by torture.