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Obscure however Essential Commodity Fuels Geopolitical Tussle in Jap Europe

KLAIPEDA, Lithuania — For almost 20 years, lengthy freight trains laden with reddish-brown grit have rumbled into Lithuania’s essential port on the Baltic Sea, offering an financial lifeline for Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the autocratic president of neighboring Belarus.

That lifeline is to be reduce on Feb. 1 after a choice by the Lithuanian authorities to halt the wagons carrying Mr. Lukashenko’s largest supply of money — potash fertilizer for export to Europe and past by the port of Klaipeda.

Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents applaud the transfer, however others fear about an unintended consequence: It advantages Russia, which is predicted to take over the transport of Belarusian potash and will achieve a stranglehold over a considerable portion of the world’s provide of the obscure however indispensable commodity.

Potash, which Russia additionally produces, may not appear to be a lot, however, prized as a crop nutrient important for international meals safety, it has greater than doubled in worth over the previous 12 months, producing billions of {dollars} in further earnings for Mr. Lukashenko and different producers. The closing of what had been Belarus’s solely export route for the commodity by the Baltics will drive costs even increased.

The nation’s state-owned railway and the Klaipeda port earn a big chunk of their income from potash. Arguments amongst Lithuania’s political and financial elite about what to do in regards to the commerce restrictions have been so heated that the federal government in December provided to resign over the problem. The ruckus erupted after the chairman of Parliament’s overseas affairs committee, Zygimantas Pavilionis, accused the federal government of betraying the USA, a key ally that final 12 months imposed sanctions on Belarus’s state-owned potash producer, and of enabling a dictator.

Mr. Pavilionis, a hawkish former Lithuanian ambassador to Washington, mentioned in an interview that the problem had turn into so tense as a result of “it’s about very large cash.”

In a December letter to Lithuania’s state-owned railway, the U.S. Treasury defined that American sanctions on a giant Belarusian potash producer didn’t apply to overseas entities, nevertheless it urged what it referred to as a “risk-based strategy” to compliance, suggesting there may very well be issues in future.

The Belarusian opposition chief Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who lives in exile in Lithuania and who has lengthy lobbied to cease the potash shipments, mentioned she was delighted to see the tip of what, in an interview, she referred to as an “immoral” enterprise whose termination will assist empty “the dictator’s deepest pocket.”

That pocket is Belaruskali, an enormous state-owned potash producer that serves as a money cow for Mr. Lukashenko’s authorities. Belarus’s largest taxpayer and largest exporter, the corporate accounts for round 20 p.c world potash provides.

However the American-led drive to bankrupt Mr. Lukashenko has stirred alarm in regards to the ensuing windfall for Russia. Canada, the world’s largest potash producer, will even achieve from an anticipated surge in costs, however Russian beneficial properties go far past simply worth.

“Russia is applauding,” Algis Latakas, the director of Klaipeda port, mentioned in an interview. Belaruskali, he mentioned, will more than likely merely swap to utilizing Russian trains and transport the commodity to Ust-Luga, a Russian port close to St. Petersburg whose improvement has lengthy been a pet undertaking of President Vladimir V. Putin’s.

Mr. Latakas mentioned he understood his authorities’s want to “struggle nondemocratic forces” however cautioned that the tip outcome on this occasion might properly be that “Russia will get a giant financial benefit” and the “energy to manage meals costs.”

Whether or not sanctions work has lengthy been a subject of educational and political debate, however within the case of these imposed on Belarus, the outcomes have thus far been significantly meager.

Over the previous 12 months, throughout which the European Union and the USA imposed a number of rounds of financial restrictions on Belarus, the worth of commerce between Europe and the East European nation has almost doubled. That’s largely due to sharp will increase within the worth of the commodities that Mr. Lukashenko exports, primarily potash and oil merchandise, whose worth has soared thanks partly to rising, sanctions-induced uncertainty over provides.

“Lukashenko is simply making extra money,” lamented Laurynas Kasciunas, the chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament’s nationwide safety and protection committee.

As an alternative of being persuaded to free political prisoners as had been hoped, Mr. Lukashenko has arrested solely extra individuals, with round 980 now behind bars for his or her political actions, according to Viasna, a group that monitors human rights in Belarus. That’s greater than double the quantity reported final June when the present spherical of sanctions started after the forced landing in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, of a Ryanair passenger jet carrying a young dissident, who was promptly arrested.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya acknowledged “the paradox that sanctions have been imposed however Belarus’s earnings has elevated” and mentioned the squeeze on Mr. Lukashenko wanted to be tightened in order to use “insufferable strain” to shake the loyalty of officers and businesspeople Mr. Lukashenko is determined by to remain in energy.

Essential for his financial survival is potash, of which Russia and Belarus collectively produce round 40 p.c of the world’s provide.

The 2 nations’ producers have for years competed fiercely for export markets, however, with Belaruskali now prone to turn into depending on Russian railways and ports to promote its merchandise overseas, Moscow will achieve highly effective leverage over the Belarusian firm. That will put it ready to make use of potash a lot in the identical manner it makes use of its management of giant reserves of pure gasoline to skew the market and put strain on European nations.

“Everybody throws round fairly slogans about democracy however the outcome can be precisely the other of what they need,” predicted Igor Udovickij, the bulk proprietor of a bulk cargo terminal at Klaipeda port half owned by Belaruskali.

“Whoever controls potash controls the provision of meals world wide,” he mentioned. “We’re simply giving Putin a nuclear weapon, however, not like the weapons he already has, that is one which he can truly use.”

Mr. Udovickij has a transparent curiosity in conserving freight trains from Belarus working to Klaipeda. However others with no cash at stake additionally fear that Russia would be the essential beneficiary of efforts to halt the potash visitors by Lithuania, previously a part of the Soviet Union — towards its will — however now a member of the European Union and NATO.

“We have to be very cautious in imposing sanctions to not simply create alternatives for others,” mentioned Mr. Kasciunas, the nationwide safety and protection committee chairman. As a stalwart American ally, he mentioned, Lithuania has an obligation to assist sanctions imposed on Belarus by the U.S. Treasury, however the nation additionally has different issues, specifically Russia.

“No person right here is pro-Lukashenko, however everybody worries most about Russia,” he mentioned. “There are very difficult geopolitics at play with potash.”

Russia has been pushing for years, thus far in useless, to get management of Belaruskali, the crown jewel of Mr. Lukashenko’s in any other case principally decrepit industrial base. Not like Belarus’s different essential income, petroleum merchandise that depend on provides of crude oil from Russia, the potash firm doesn’t rely on Russia to do enterprise. At the very least not till this month.

Mr. Lukashenko, having referred to as for assist from the Kremlin to place down enormous road protests set off by a presidential election extensively seen as rigged in August 2020, has steadily misplaced his capability to withstand Russian calls for. And Belaruskali is now trying more and more susceptible.

In latest weeks, the corporate has not solely misplaced its export route by Lithuania but in addition its largest European buyer, Yara, a partly state-owned Norwegian firm.

Yara introduced on Jan. 10 that it was phasing out all purchases from Belaruskali and would cease shopping for by April 1.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya dismissed issues that sanctions would push her nation solely nearer to Russia as an argument promoted by Mr. Lukashenko and his supporters “to attempt to cease principled motion — it’s all a bluff.”

Nonetheless, Lithuania will lose lots of of tens of millions of {dollars} from halting Belarus exports by Klaipeda, and, in keeping with an inside authorities report assessing potential harm, it might face authorized claims of as much as $15 billion over damaged contracts. Mr. Udovickij, for one, says he plans to sue the federal government for hefty damages.

However for a small nation depending on the USA for safety towards an more and more assertive Russia, much more is at stake than simply cash, the minister of transport, Marius Skuodis, mentioned in an interview. Potash, he added, “is a really tough geopolitical query.”

Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania.

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