This article was written within the framework of the Shadow Diplomats international project.
- The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) drew attention to the controversial work of honorary consuls’ institution. These volunteer diplomats work from their home countries to promote the interests of foreign governments, typically in places without an embassy or consulate.
- A first-of-its-kind global investigation by ProPublica and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identified at least 500 current and former honorary consuls who were publicly accused of wrongdoing or embroiled in controversy. ProPublica and ICIJ worked on the project together with 59 media partners, including the BIC.
- Belarus is among the top 20 countries with the largest number of current and former honorary consuls who have been embroiled in scandals or criminal cases. Among them are Lukashenka's wallets and businessmen who have earned their fortune thanks to their ties with the regime.
ICIJ's work with the BIC and other partners showed that the honorary consul system has been undermined by unchecked appointees who have abused their status to enrich themselves, evade law enforcement or advance political agendas, the investigation found.
The Kingdom of Shadows
11 businessmen on the Shadow Diplomats list are current or former honorary consuls to Belarus. Our country shares with India the 15th-16th place as for the number of “shadow diplomats” worldwide. The leaders of the rating are Spain, US, Russia, and Germany, where there are more than 20 honorary consuls who were publicly accused of wrongdoing or embroiled in controversy. However, if we compare these figures with the population of the countries and territories from which “shadow diplomats” work, then Belarus ranks 5th out of 170.
All the suspicious consuls with Belarusian residences 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. Most of them are close to the Lukashenka regime and, with its help, were able to make deals to the detriment of Belarusian taxpayers.
We have a separate dossier on him. While working on it, we learned that correspondence with Lukashenka helped Tsiatseryn to be exempt from some taxes. Also, with the approval of Lukashenka, he received fur processing monopoly for the Belkoopsoyuz company and was doing it at inflated prices. Tsiatseryn also had international projects: he participated in grey schemes for re-export of flowers, fruits, and vegetables to Russia.
In 2020, Tsiatseryn proposed to the Belarusian authorities an “experiment” on disinfection of transport at the border. The project was approved, and Tsiatseryn's company BelGlobalGarant received a monopoly on its implementation at the Nova Huta checkpoint.
As honorary consul, Tsiatseryn was not as active as in business. His main achievement in this field is the opening of a representative office of Georgia in Lukashenka's small homeland, in Alexandria village. This happened in 2019, and already in 2020, Tsiatseryn's company BelGlobalGarant received the right to import wines and cognacs to Belarus, including Georgian ones.
In Belarus, he represents the interests of Zambia. The honorary consulate of this country opened in Minsk in August 2020. A few months before, Zambia expressed interest in buying Belarusian tractors, and Zaitsau had successful business projects in Africa. His company Sohra supplied Belarusian machines there, including for diamond mining in 2017.
In our previous investigations, we talked about Zaitsau's role in the grey supply of sanctioned goods to Russia and other suspicious schemes that he implemented through Gaz Venture, a Belarusian firm with Cypriot shareholders. The businessman is also associated with Kidma tech, which was positioned as a daughter company of the state enterprise Belspetsvneshtechnika. They are engaged in the export of weapons and military equipment.
Zaitsau is also a co-owner of the logistics company Bremino Group, which Lukashenka personally exempted from most taxes. Another Zaitsau's asset, Sohra Overseas, registered in the UAE, but also operating in our country, does not replenish the Belarusian treasury. Thus, Zaitsau can siphon off unpaid Belarusian taxes, with the permission of Lukashenka, to the Emirates.
Tobacco magnate Pavel Topouzidis is also an honorary consul.
Since 2015, he has represented the interests of Greece in Belarus, and, since 2021, Romania's as well. In our country, he is known as a magnate of the tobacco industry. In one of the investigations, we caught his business smuggling. It turned out that Topouzidis' company Tabak-Invest supplied cigarettes from Belarus to Russia, while underpaying excise taxes to the Belarusian treasury. According to our calculations, this scheme added about one and a half million dollars to Topuzidis' income. Having studied the flight history of this businessman, we also learned that he is a guest on family vacations of the Lukashenka family.
Together with his son, he controlled the Belarusian companies Logex and Eximoil. The first supplied flowers to Russia, and the second exported petroleum products from there. Businesses were caught in fraud under the cover of the Belarusian authorities.
The privilege for Shakutsin's flower business was created by Lukashenka's decree. In August 2011, he exempted importers from paying VAT in the case of subsequent export of these goods from Belarus. In Russia, VAT had to be paid, so when goods were delivered there from Belarus, their cost was significantly underestimated. This allowed Belarusian re-exporters to save on taxes. With oil, everything was even simpler: Russia supplied duty-free black oil products to Belarusian firms, among which was Shakutsin's Eximoil, and they sold them further. Lukashenka defended this scheme personally.
Shakutsin also has interests in Bangladesh, being its honorary consul. In 2016, Amkador Holding fulfilled a contract for $50 million worth supplies to this country, and, in 2020, it agreed on new supplies – already for $117 million. In 2021, it became known about Amkador's new contracts with Bangladesh, but their amount was not disclosed.
Diplomacy and business
Alexander Zingman is another honorary consul with residence in Belarus.
Since January 2019, he has represented Zimbabwe, and he has really strong ties with this country. About a year before his appointment, Zingman founded a gold mining company there together with Siarhei (Sergei) Sheiman, the son of Viktar (Victor) Sheiman, Aliaksandr Lukashenka's right-hand man. In one of our investigations, we found out that Zingman and his partner received the right to explore the gold deposit precisely thanks to Sheiman Sr. He lobbied for the idea of a private project in exchange for the supply of Belarusian equipment to Zimbabwe from state-owned enterprises.
Zingman and Siarhei Sheiman ran their project in Africa through Zim Goldfields firm. About 9 months before Zingman's appointment as consul the firm received several special grants for gold mining in Zimbabwe.
International sanctions have so far bypassed him, but he was still added to the list of Shadow Diplomats. The reason is that Congressman Chris Smith called for the introduction of personal restrictions against Mashenski allegedly for providing bonus money for riot police engaged in the violent crackdown of protesters after the 2020 elections in Belarus. There were rumors that the EU was also going to impose sanctions. But Mashenski was saved by Iceland, the country that made him its honorary consul. In one of our next investigations, we will tell you more about this businessman.
But, unlike Mashenski, he has already been sanctioned. Canada imposed restrictions against him for Belarus' support of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The reason for this is Baiko's active political engagement: he is a senator and a member of the commission on economy, budget, and finance. For the same reason, he was included on the list of Shadow Diplomats.
The main thing is desire, and there will be a country
There are no strict criteria for appointment to the position of honorary consul, so it is difficult to determine the connection of some “shadow diplomats” from Belarus with the countries they represent. For example, the chairman of the Supervisory Board of the bank Reshenie (Solution) Viktor Chevtsov promotes the interests of the Philippines in our country.
We didn't find any business or any other interests there. And Chevtsov was added to the ICIJ list for contacts with a completely different government.
In 2004, the US FinCEN suspected the bank Reshenie (Solution), which was then called Infobank, of actively laundered funds for the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. According to FinCEN, Infobank laundered funds illegally paid to the former regime in order to obtain contracts to purchase Iraqi oil in violation of comprehensive United Nations sanctions and programs, such as Oil-for-Food program (UN OFF). Chevtsov was chairman of the board of Infobank at that time. In 2014, the US FinCEN removed the bank from sanctions list.
In Belarus, the KGB also had questions to the businessman. In 2011, he was suspected of siphoning $10 million from Belarusian construction projects in Venezuela and was ordered to pay damages. It is unknown whether Chevtsov returned the money to the treasury, but he was released in 2012. We will tell you more about this businessman in one of our next investigations.
He called his appointment to this post “a door to certain new opportunities", but did not specify whether these “opportunities” are related to the interests of Santiago. We don't have information about Balabin's ties with Chile. But we talked about his Belarusian company Lekt in one of our investigations. Contrary to the law, this company has built a multi-storey parking lot in Minsk on Rosa Luxemburg Street. Lekt's director is an official with a leading position in the Ministry of Architecture.
Our colleagues from ICIJ were also suspicious of Balabin's track record: he is a graduate of the Academy of Public Administration under the president of Belarus and a former employee of the affairs managing department of the presidential administration. The sum of these factors ensured that he got into the Shadow Diplomats database.
Businessman Upendra Mahato no longer serves as honorary consul of Nepal to Belarus.
However, his activity in this position did not go unnoticed. In Belarus, Mahato was involved in construction. For example, he built the Galileo office and entertainment center near the Central Bus Station in Minsk. Also, together with Aliaksandr Shakutsin, this businessman privatized several state-owned enterprises for little money and turned them into Amkodor holding.
At home, things were not going so well for Mahato: in 2012, he was charged with tax evasion. However, this did not prevent him from remaining honorary consul of Nepal to Belarus for several more years.
Alexey Sychov, co-founder of pharmaceutical companies Nativita and VitVar, is also on the list of “shadow diplomats” from Belarus.
He has already lost his status as honorary consul of Slovakia, as well as part of the business in his homeland. Our investigations have shown that Sychov had been engaged in fake import substitution and the same fake production of anti-cancer drugs for a long time. Working on those stories, we found out that the money that the Belarusian authorities overpaid Sychov would have been enough to save the lives of dozens of children with SMA. The treatment of this deadly disease is not difficult, but expensive. Belarus, unlike neighboring countries, does not pay for it for its citizens.
In 2019, the businessman was accused of giving a bribe, and, without appearing in court, fled to Slovakia.
As a rule, the appointment of an honorary consul is associated with the business interests of specific people. "Shakutin supplied equipment to Bangladesh. Accordingly, they showed a mutual interest in him. The same with Moshensky. In Belarus he represents Iceland, where he buys fish, and Iceland saves him from European sanctions. This is such a lobbying construction, focused on the personality of the honorary consul", Vladimir Astapenko, a former high-ranking Belarusian diplomat said in a comment to the BIC.
Senior researcher at The Center for New Ideas and former diplomat Pavel Matsukevich shares a similar opinion. He believes that foreign states are trying to find an honorary consul in Belarus among the representatives of the elite close to the authorities, so that it would be easier for them to promote their interests. “It could be politics, it could be economics, it could be business interests. [In Belarus] We just have an elite with a dubious reputation”, Matsukevich said in a comment to the BIC.
Honorary Consul to Belarus
This is the first part of our material within the framework of the Shadow Diplomats project. We have already informed the Belarusian audience about these grey business schemes. Now the international community will also learn about businessmen close to Lukashenka.
Thanks to the work with foreign partners, the BIC revealed the activities of another “shadow diplomat”. This is a foreigner who represents our country on the European stage. While the EU imposed sanctions, trying to weaken the Lukashenka regime, this businessman increased trade with a Belarusian state-owned enterprise, and then used the influence of our diplomats for personal purposes.
Author: Aliaksei Hulitski. Editors: Stanislau Ivashkevich, Olga Ratmirova
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