Why Belarus KGB Detained the Country's Former Top Businesman
On 11 March, the Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB) detained Yury Chyzh, one of Belarus' richest businessmen who used to be on friendly terms with President Alexander Lukashenka.
The European Union once viewed him as "Lukashenka's purse" and he was on the EU sanctions list until recently, seeming to be "untouchable".
Chyzh's detention followed rough times for his business. Several theories may explain his detention: the authorities are simply trying to raise cash, Chyzh became a victim of a struggle inside the regime, or Belarus is trying to challenge the interests of Russian businessmen.
Harvesting Potatoes with Lukashenka
Yury Chyzh is just one of many talented businessmen to emerge in Belarus in the 1990s. But he differs from many other entrepreneurs because he managed to expand his business empire and built close personal relations with Lukashenka, who does not have a pro-business reputation.
Just two years ago, Chyzh, general director of the Triple Holding, topped the ranking of the most influential businesspeople in Belarus. His business empire focused on oil refining, but had interests in many spheres – from producing soft drinks to construction. He was a regular at the president's home and accompanied him on public occasions – from foreign visits to hockey matches and harvesting potatoes.
In 2012 the European Union put Chyzh on the list of sanctioned persons because he was "Lukashenka's purse". According to the European Union, Chyzh "provided financial support to the Lukashenka regime".
Chyzh never played an important political role, although he executed some deals at the request of the government. Among them, the so-called solvents business - in the early 2010s Chyzh was involved in the controversial trade of refined Russian oil products. The Belarusian state has profited from the deals. So has Chyzh.
On 15 March, KGB chairman Valery Vakulchyk told journalists that his agency arrested Chyzh for tax fraud. According to the KBG chairman, Chyzh tried to flee the country by speeding 220km per hour towards the Western border, trying to escape from the Belarusian special services who eventually managed to catch him.
When asked about whether Lukashenka knew about the arrest, Vakulchyk said that he had made the decision on his own. Vakulchyk also added that "just because someone has had his photo taken with Lukashenka or played hockey with him, it does not mean he receives any special treatment."
The first signs of Chyzh's problems emerged after a company owned by Triple failed to complete construction of a hotel in the centre of Minsk on time. Officials started to hint that a new investor was coming to replace Chyzh. At the same time, the government had to prolong the terms of a state-commissioned contract on construction of army housing for Triple.
This year, Chyzh failed to even make it into the Top 10 list of the most influential businesspeople
Still, the detention last August of Chyzh's closest business partner, Vladimir Yaprintsev, and his son Kazbek, was unexpected. Nineteenth in the ranking of the most influential businessman compiled by Ezhednevnik daily, Yaprintsev was arrested on suspicion of illegally channelling his money abroad. Now the Belarusian authorities are charging Yury Chyzh with doing the same.
Yaprintsev and Chyzh are now giving evidence against each other. Their relations turned sour when their business empire started to crumble. In recent years Triple has started selling its assets, downsizing personnel and cutting expenses. This year, Chyzh failed to even make it into the Top 10 list of the most influential businesspeople, landing in 12th place.
Why the Belarusian authorities detained Chyzh
It seems that nobody believes that the Belarusian KGB can act without direct authorisation of Lukashenka in such high level cases. There are three possible explanations for what was behind the decision to go after the Chyzh business empire.
Version No 1: The Belarusian authorities are trying to raise money inside the country. Belarus desperately needs money and foreign creditors remain reluctant to work with Belarus. So the authorities need other ways to fill the gaps in the Belarusian budget. Chasing business people who have fallen out of favour with Lukashenka is one way. With Chyzh's empire tumbling because of disagreements with his business partners and falling oil prices, the authorities decided to take what they can.
As money stores in Belarus shrink, the competition for resources keeps increasing. Chyzh is not the only example. Several days after Chyzh's detention, the authorities arrested Yauhen Baskin, the largest producer of broiler meat in Belarus. Chyzh's arrest may be part of a larger campaign against Belarusian businessmen to raise funds.
Version No 2: Chyzh became a victim of an internal regime struggle. Chyzh, as one of only a few pro-market voices in the establishment and one of the richest Belarusians, has enough enemies. Now and then he has criticised government officials - in an interview given two years ago, but published by Narodnaja Volia newspaper only after his arrest, Chyzh proposed firing half of all bureaucrats.
Chyzh is far from being Belarus' Khodorkovsky
Although he is far from being Belarus' Khodorkovsky, his strong position seems to have challenged the old guard, formed of officials, directors of state-run enterprises and law-enforcement agencies. And when Chyzh's business started to weaken, the KGB used the opportunity to lock him up in a Belarusian prison.
Version No 3: Belarus is cracking down on Russian businesses in the country. By disrupting Triple, the Belarusian authorities are also challenging the company's Russian shareholders who have leverage at the highest levels of the Russian establishment. Two minority stakes (16.75 per cent each) in Triple belong to Russian businessmen Iosif Aksentyev and Mikhail Mamiashvili. Both seem to mix business, political and criminal activities. It is possible that the Belarusian authorities want to disrupt the whole business empire linked to Aksentyev and Mamiashvili.
The Belarusian leadership has once again proved that it itself decides what to do about Russian business interests in Belarus. On a previous occasion, Minsk did not hesitate to arrest Vladislav Baumgertner, a top-manager of major Russian company Uralkali.
Whatever the reason for the arrest, it remains unlikely that Chyzh will spend much time behind bars. The Belarusian authorities have a tradition of freeing convicted officials and businessmen ahead of schedule if they show loyalty and pay compensation for their crimes.
But even if Chyzh leaves prison soon and saves at least part of his business, his case represents the epic fall of the most influential Belarusian businessman.
Siarhei Bohdan & Ryhor Astapenia