Estonian government under fire for booming trade with Belarus

Estonian government under fire for booming trade with Belarus
A migrant camp on the Lithuania-Belarus border. The Baltic states have accused Belarus of being behind the migrant surge last year.
By bne IntelliNews January 3, 2022

Estonia, like Lithuania, has become embarrassed by the strength of its trade with sanctioned Belarus, despite the government's strong vocal stance against Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

In 2021, imports of classified goods (petrochemicals subject to EU sanctions) from neighbouring Belarus to Estonia increased 30-fold, from €13mn to €410mn. Much of these imports are thought to have been handled by Estonian state company Operail. Separately, in November 2021, ERR News reported the amount of Belarusian goods imported to Estonia had risen to a record high in 2021.

Estonian companies – including state-owned ones – appear to have rushed to help facilitate landlocked Belarus' desperation for export revenues as sanctions for Lukashenko's clampdown on opposition put the regime under economic pressure. 

Neighbouring Lithuania suffered a political crisis last month when it was revealed that the state-owned railways was continuing to export Belarusian potash to the port of Klapeida.

Like Lithuania, Estonia says that companies brokering or transiting goods from Belarus to the foreign market through Estonia do not violate sanctions imposed on Lukashenko's regime. Nevertheless, the surge in Belarusian imports is deeply embarassing because of the government's strong stance against Lukashenko.

Kristina Ots, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, was quoted as saying: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has no reason to believe that an Estonian state-owned company or the authorities have violated the existing sanctions. Of course, If the restrictions are specified or changed, compliance with them must be reassessed."

Estonia applies sanctions adopted by the United Nations, EU and the Estonian state, but is not bound to enforce US sanctions. These international sanctions have been applied to individuals and entities in areas such as finance.

Estonian newspaper Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) has reported products that fund the Belarusian regime, such as oil, can still transit through Estonia and reach ports for export. Ots said compliance of these exports has been checked by the Latvian Customs, the Estonian Tax and Customs Board and the train companies against the sanctions in place.

She said the Estonian authorities are ready to apply additional sanctions if the current restrictions are amended. "Discussions are taking place in the European Union so that Europe would establish, enforce and apply sanctions uniformly," Ots said.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) says transit is in line with sanctions. Belarus has had oil refineries since Soviet times which use raw materials from Russia. Refining the products creates income for the Belarusian regime when exported.

The EU and US have imposed several rounds of sanctions on the Belarusian regime after a crackdown on the political opposition after the presidential election in 2020, the forced landing of a Ryanair plane and a "hybrid attack" using migrants on Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. The most recent round came into effect at the start of December.