Dolce vita: how an Italian businessman found a gold mine in Belarus

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Dolce vita: how an Italian businessman found a gold mine in Belarus

This article was prepared in partnership with Süddeutsche Zeitung, L'Espresso and Profil as part of the Shadow Diplomats international project.

  • The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published the Shadow Diplomats project.  It shines light on one of the least-examined roles in international diplomacy: the honorary consul. Investigations about criminal cases and scandals in which these volunteer diplomats are involved have been combined by journalists into a single database. ICIJ worked on the project together with an independent non-profit newsroom ProPublica and 59 other media partners, including the BIC.
  • The final list included at least 500 “shadow diplomats”, and 11 of them are current and former honorary consuls in Belarus. All of them are businessmen, and many were main figures of our previous investigations. The re-export of sanctioned goods, smuggling, illegal construction, arms trade, and the sale of medicines at inflated prices – this is an incomplete list of cases in which these “shadow diplomats” are involved. We reported about it in detail in the first part of this investigation.
  • There is another group of "shadow diplomats", which is connected with the official Minsk. These are foreigners who represent the interests of Belarus in other countries. One of them is businessman Roberto Gotti, honorary consul of Belarus in Italy. Our joint investigation with German, Italian and Austrian partners showed that after August 2020, Gotti continued to promote the products of the Belarusian state-owned enterprise in the EU, and this allowed him to use the influence of Belarusian diplomats for personal gain.

Strike while the iron is hot

Photo: https://belsteel.com/

Since 2000, Roberto Gotti has been running Dismas Trading, a wholesaler of iron and other metal articles.

All this time the company has been cooperating with Belarus, in particular with the Byelorussian Steel Works (BMZ). Gotti vaguely explains that “important Belarusian people” brought him to this market.

Two separate sources named us more specific reasons that could attract Gotti to Belarus. For example, logistics: BMZ is one of the closest metallurgical plants located to Italy.

In 2010, Dismas Trading received the exclusive right to trade BMZ products in Italy, and Gotti himself became a partner of the plant. With his help, the enterprise supplied Italy with rolled metal products, seamless pipes, wire rod, nails, wire and blooms. According to Belstat, the export of these goods to Italy has been dynamic since 2010, and reached a peak in 2021.

During the years of Gotti's exclusive partnership with BMZ, Belarus exported steel and iron to Italy for more than $380 million. Almost $46 million of this amount was received in 2021.

From colleagues at L'Espresso, we received data on the income of Gotti's firm for this period. In 2021, Dismas Trading generated approximately $40 million in revenue and nearly $490,000 in net profit.

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If we consider this indicator as an average, then for 12 years Dismas Trading could earn about 6 million dollars in Belarus.

All roads lead to Rome

Roberto Gotti not only leads Dismas Trading, he is also a co-owner of the company. Until December 2021, he owned half of the firm. He sold his share to the Italian company Triholding, which became the main shareholder of Dismas (83%).

At the same time, half of Triholding belongs to Gotti himself. Another 50% is owned by the Italian shipping company Samer & Co Shipping. Dismas Trading used it as a shipping company for their products. The remaining 17% of Dismas Trading is now owned by the Austrian company RMZ VERTRIEBSGESELLSCHAFT.

Its main shareholder is businessman Eduard Pinchasov, who has been promoting BMZ products in Europe since 1993.

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From colleagues at Profil, we learned that RMZ was positioned as a subsidiary of BMZ and BELMET HANDELSGESELLSCHAFT M.B.H. At the same time, BELMET is a subsidiary of BMZ. It also had a 33% stake in Dismas Trading. However, on 24th of February 2022, the day of Russian invasion of Ukraine, BELMET transferred these shares to Triholding.

A little earlier, in December 2021, BELMET also withdrew from RMZ shareholders. Thus, until the end of last year, almost 50% of Dismas Trading eventually belonged to the Byelorussian Metallurgical Company holding, and all the company's activities were focused on the export of Belarusian products. Part of the profits from Dismas Trading was personally received by Roberto Gotti. Now he shares the company's profits with firms that helped him with logistics or establishing contacts in Belarus.

Honorary Consul

In November 2018, Development Bank of Belarus signed with Dismas Trading the agreement regarding financing of export deliveries of BMZ to the Italian market. A month later Gotti became the Honorary Consul of Belarus in Italy. In this position he participated in organising cultural and sports events. He claims to have organised over a hundred exhibitions to promote the European Games in Minsk. Upon becoming a consul Gotti also promised to broaden the product line he supplied to Italy to include “all Belarusian goods”. In 2020 he supplied for the first time to Italy cold-rolled products from unalloyed flat-rolled steel. In the same year the official Ambassador of Belarus in Italy honoured Gotti with a state award.

In August 2020, BMZ was shaken by the workers’ protests, inspired by distrust to official results of Presidential elections and violence towards participants of protests that followed the elections. Up to 70 people may have been layed off, as a result of repressions by the factory management, a source at BMZ claims. About 40 of them have been forced to flee Belarus.

Photo: https://belsteel.com/

The EU reacted with sanctions against Belarusian state owned enterprises, aiming to cripple the financing of repression. Meanwhile, in May 2021 Gotti organised negotiations in Italy between representatives of BMZ and potential partners. Three packages of EU sanctions were in place by that time, but BMZ was not included yet. General director of the factory admitted that “a certain work” done by the partners” was to thank for that. 

We have no proof that Gotti was instrumental in delaying sanctions against BMZ, but as a result of that delay he continued to legally export BMZ production for over a year more. BMZ products have been sanctioned in March 2022. Supplies to Italy continued until July, which BIC learned from Eurostat. 

We requested verification of this delivery and found out that there is information about an early shipment from BMZ. The contract for the delivery to Italy was concluded before the start of the sanctions, but the cargo was cleared by customs only in July.

At the moment, Roberto Gotti is officially unable to trade with BMZ, but his contacts with the Belarusian authorities continue on political grounds now. From colleagues at Süddeutsche Zeitung, we received documents that show how Gotti used the influence of Belarusian diplomats for personal purposes.

Unsportsmanlike conduct

Roberto Gotti organised sports events in Belarus not only as an honorary consul, but also as a representative of the Italian Historical Fencing Federation. At home, he has his own martial arts school. Its opening was attended by the then Belarusian Ambassador to Italy Aleksandr Guryanov and Olympic champion Yelena Belova. The state flag of Belarus hung in the school together with the Italian flag.

According to documents that we received from Süddeutsche Zeitung, in 2022 Gotti turned to the Belarusian embassy in Italy to get Belarusian votes in the presidential elections of the European Fencing Confederation. He asked to vote for his countryman Giorgio Scarso. The embassy agreed, noting Gotti's services to the Belarusian authorities.

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In a secret ballot, Scarso won the election. We cannot say that Belarusian diplomats ensured his victory, but Gotti's appeal clearly shows how honorary consuls can abuse their status.

Together with our colleagues, we sent an official letter to Roberto Gotti with a request to comment on his appeal to Belarusian diplomats. He confirmed that he asked them to influence the outcome of the elections of the European Fencing Confederation, however, according to him, he did this in order to preserve relations between the Belarusian and Italian federations, athletes and coaches.

Roberto Gotti was unable to give a clear answer to our question about his connections with the Belarusian authorities. “If you ask me if sanctions are a good political tool, I can only answer that I’m not and don’t want to be a politician and that I don’t know whether it is better to stop all business relations or leave them open”, he said.

The mandate of the honorary consul of Belarus in Italy for Roberto Gotti expires in 2023. He hopes to extend its term.