Our investigation looks at how the Belarusian authorities got themselves into oil debt and what else Minsk owes Caracas.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENEZUELA
A source from a Belarusian state agency gave us documents showing Belarus has still not paid a Venezuelan supplies contract for oil that was delivered 10 years ago, during Hugo Chávez's presidency. The debt is up to $1.5 billion.
We have a copy of a document dated September 2015 which was prepared for a session with the Belarusian Prime Minister. It indicates the Belarusian authorities did not intend to send the money to Venezuela. In a nutshell, it says that Belarus decided “to treat the debt as aid provided by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, rather than Belarusian liability”.
Our colleagues at OCCRP tried to find out whether Venezuela plans to claim this debt and sent an enquiry to PDVSA, the state oil and gas company of Venezuela, but have not yet received an answer.
Belarusian Oil Company CEO Mikhail Kostsechko refused to comment when we called him and pretended to be unaware of any liability.
But the documents we have are very clear about what this debt is and its origin. At issue are about 9 million tons of oil delivered to Belarus under an agreement with Venezuela in 2010, at the height of an “energy war” with Russia.
At that time, the Kremlin refused to make concessions on duty-free supplies of crude oil to Belarus’ oil refineries. Vladimir Putin tried to drive Belarus into the Eurasian Economic Union on his own terms. Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko resisted and visited Chávez to negotiate an alternative oil supply.
The agreements were reached due to friendly relations between the two country leaders. At the time, the two countries were already providing each other with considerable assistance: Belarus helped develop Venezuela's air defence system, while Venezuela, in its turn, granted Belarus a $500 million loan.
It is therefore not surprising that when Vladimir Putin pushed Lukashenko to join the Eurasian Economic Union by reducing the amount of subsidised oil sold to Belarus, Lukashenko decided to look for other sources of hydrocarbons. But what is interesting is the price at which Chávez supplied Lukashenko with oil and the terms of payment
Under the contract, the Belarusian Oil Company bought 30 million tons of Santa Barbara or another oil grade from Venezuela's PDVSA as agreed in 2011-2013. The crude was delivered via Black Sea and Baltic Sea ports to the Belarusian refineries in Mazyr and Navapolatsk.
BOC paid 80% of the oil cost to PDVSA within 35 days from the date of the consignment note. The remaining 20% was accrued as an obligation of the buyer to the seller, with the terms of fulfillment determined by the governments of Venezuela and Belarus.
Roughly speaking, Belarus received a discount on Venezuelan oil by promising to pay one-fifth of the price later, but never did so.
When the oil tankers left for Belarus, the Venezuelans had no idea that they would not be paid. They even assisted the Belarusian client in reducing the cost of delivery. The following scheme was used: in its ports, the Venezuelan company PDVSA sold Santa Barbara oil to the Azerbaijani company SOCAR, and instead of Santa Barbara, the Azerbaijani Azeri Light oil was delivered to the Belarusian refineries.
Despite all efforts to make transportation cheaper, according to Belstat, Russian oil was still cheaper for Belarus than Venezuelan and Azeri grades. But Belarus benefited from its cooperation with Venezuela and Azerbaijan: Lukashenko managed to bargain with Putin for duty-free oil supplies.
From 2010 to 2012 Belarus bought from PDVSA some 9 million tons of crude oil and paid over $7 billion.
After a thaw in relations between Lukashenko and Putin, Belarus stopped buying Venezuelan oil. But the 20% still owed – nearly $1.5 billion – has not been paid in 10 years.
Venezuela offered to buy shares in Naftan oil refinery, Minsk Automobile Plant and Belarusian Steel Works as a way to discharge the debt. Belarus offered to repay the money in Belarusian goods. This all happened behind the scenes. Publicly, the debt appeared to not exist.
Venezuela thinks of it as a debt; to Belarus, it is a gift. “This debt is a constant topic of discussion between Belarus and Venezuela,” says Anatol Kotau, a former diplomat and member of the Belarusian presidential administration.
While negotiations continue, Venezuela does not appear to be making any official demands on Belarus. It could apply to an international court for recovery of the money. Venezuela could use the money. Its standard of living is very low today.
There were other projects. Lukashenko and Chávez agreed that Belarus would supply Venezuela with $270 million worth of machinery, in particular tractors.
We called the Minsk Tractor Works to find out what kind of tractors were supplied to Venezuela, but they were not in the mood for talk.
“Let’s end the conversation right away. We won’t make any comments to you,” an MTW representative said.
Other joint projects with Venezuela were less successful. Belarus tractor and MAZ truck assembly plant construction began in the Venezuelan state of Barinas in December 2010. The work was completed in just 18 months at an estimated total cost of $55 million for both projects.
The plan was to produce 10,000 tractors and 5,000 trucks per year. Belarus and Venezuela wanted to sell them not only to local farmers but also to neighboring countries. But it did not work out. In 2017, the factories suspended work because of an economic crisis in Venezuela. In five years of operation, only about 3,000 tractors and a similar number of trucks were produced.
We have tried to get in touch with MTW and MAZ to find out what is going on in the joint ventures, but they have refused to speak to us on the phone. Last December, our colleagues in Venezuela visited these plants and reported them being out of operation.
CASHING IN ON MISFORTUNE
Another unsuccessful project involved housing construction. Shortly after the oil contract was signed, thousands of families were left homeless in Venezuela due to flooding. Chávez launched a housing construction program, and Belarus decided to participate. The greatest potential was seen in building 10,000 homes in the Fuerte Tiuna district of Caracas.
The cost was estimated at $750 million. Our information is that Venezuela has only made a small part of this payment, and construction has been stalled for a long time.
“As long as the money was on the table, the Belarusians did the building work. Once the money was gone, there was no way for them to continue,” explains a former Belarusian diplomat, Pavel Slunkin, who worked for the construction company Belzarubezhstroy in 2011-2012.
In the summer of 2022, the Belarusian Embassy in Venezuela reported that more apartments were finally commissioned. The pause was attributed to Western sanctions against Belarus and Venezuela. In 15 years, Belarusians have only built 8,000 flats out of the planned 20,000. The overall cost is estimated at $320 million.
During the investigation, we also found businessmen who profited from the friendship between Chávez and Lukashenko.
Both factories and residential compounds in Venezuela were built by the Belzarubezhstroy company. It was established in late spring of 2007 “to execute government commissions for the construction of housing and other facilities in Venezuela.”
We estimate that Belzarubezhstroy completed projects in Venezuela worth at least half a billion dollars. Some of this money went into private pockets.
The company was founded by four enterprises. Two of them – Gomelpromstroy and Stroitelny Trest No. 8 – are state-run, while the other two are private.
A Belarus government delegation flew to Caracas on July 9, 2007, one month after the establishment of Belzarubezhstroy. Then-Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko and head of the Security Council Viktor Sheyman were on board. Lukashenko appointed the latter to supervise Belarusian projects in Venezuela. Businessman Viktar Shautsou was also among the passengers. He became one of the beneficiaries of Belarusian projects in Venezuela.
At that time, Shautsou was the key owner of Trustbank.
Over time, 39% of Belzarubezhstroy’s shares were taken over first by the United Arab Emirates company Almando and then by another Emirati firm, Alm Investments.
Shautsou’s longtime partner, UAE resident Sultan Mohammed Ahmad Alzaraim Al Suwaidi, is behind those companies. But the construction business was run by Сhevtsov, who was the board chairman at Belzarubezhstroy.
During the 2007 government visit, Belzarubezhstroy signed a contract to supply Belarusian machinery to Venezuela. In December 2007, when Lukashenko made his first official visit to Caracas, the Belarusian developer won its first contract to build housing in the state of Aragua. In 2009 the company signed another contract to build a construction materials production plant with an estimated investment of worth $112 million.
High-ranking Venezuela officials assisted Belarus businessmen. “At the height of all these construction projects, Shautsou could enter fairly important offices precisely because he enjoyed the patronage and help of a friend of Hugo Chávez,” Kotau told us.
Shautsou often traveled with Belarusian officials. With the help of the CyberPartisans hacker group, we have found two such trips with Viktar Sheiman, four – with Uladzimir Siamashka, and over 20 flights with the then-Deputy Minister and would-be Minister of Architecture and Construction Anatol Nichkasau.
We called Nichkasov and tried to find out whether Belarusian officials lobbied for Shautsou's interests in Venezuela.
“Why are you asking me about another person? I know what the ministry was doing, what I was doing. And you say I was traveling. I wasn’t travelling. I was on a government mission to organise construction in Venezuela. That was our interstate obligation,” Nichkasov said.
Regarding Shautsou’s interests, Nichkasov replied:
“No, no and no. Our conversation is over. Don’t bother me anymore.”
So who is Viktar Shautsou, a businessman who enjoyed the trust of Belarusian high-ranking officials? The Infobank he founded provided services to the authorities. According to the news outlet Ezhednevnik, the bank thrived on intermediary business with certain countries where the Belarusian leadership, ostracized by the US and the West, was trying to find a niche.
In 2004, Shautsou’s Infobank was put under US restrictions because of suspicions of money for Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Funds were earned in transactions circumventing the UN Oil-for-Food Program.
According to Ezhednevnik, the Belarusian company Belmetallenergo was set up for the Iraqi project. One of the beneficiaries was Shautsou. Belmetallenergo provided 90% of Belarusian machinery supplies to Iraq. Iraq paid with oil, which was then sold on the world market, Ezhednevnik wrote.
After an examination, the US lifted restrictions on Infobank in 2014. It had already been renamed Trustbank, and it is now called Reshenie Bank. The main beneficiary of the bank is Mohammed Al Suwaidi. Shautsou is a minority shareholder and heads the bank’s supervisory board.
“Overtly or covertly, Viktar Shautsou is connected with the Infobank-Trustbank structures and oil deals in Iraq. He has earned his capital as an intermediary. And of course, if the Belarusian party was involved in all this, it meant a certain closeness to Lukashenko. Therefore, his appearance in Venezuela as the main operator of the construction is not absolutely accidental. It’s more of a pattern,” Kotau contends
Links with Arab countries came in handy during the Venezuelan projects. As we learned, Shautsou took loans from his Arab partners for construction in Caracas.
There is another interesting fact in Shautsou's biography. In October 2011, he was detained by the KGB on suspicion of grand theft in a case related to housing construction in Venezuela. In Venezuela, Belzarubezhstroy was suspected of ties with a mafia engaged in iron smuggling. The theft of construction materials was also reported.
Lukashenko himself commented on the case on December 23, 2011.
“This is a common criminal case, nothing extraordinary, but this is not the first time this gentleman has come to the attention of law enforcement agencies. Damage to the state? Two, three times the amount – put money on the table and off you go. If he does not pay the money, he will go to prison,” BelTA state media agency quoted him as saying.
The media wrote that Shautsou was released in December 2012. For a long time, nothing much was heard about him.
The owner of a large cottage in the Drazdy estate and a four-bedroom flat in the center of Minsk, he still chose to leave Belarus. However, he is still associated with Belzarubezhstroy. In April 2022 the company was renamed ViaSETrade.
Its website does not mention any projects in Venezuela. However, according to our sources, the company’s shareholders have not changed, and Shautsou is still the board chairman.
We asked Shautsou to comment on his involvement in Venezuela. Through a representative, he refused to comment. Shautsou’s current location is unknown.
We thank CyberPartisans for their help in making this article.
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