MOSCOW — Russia's largest potash producer, Uralkali, on Tuesday criticized Belarus' prosecution of its CEO as an attempt to keep the company from competing in the local market.
Uralkali pulled out of a trading venture with its partner in Belarus in July. Because most of the venture's employees reportedly went to work for Uralkali, Belarus was left with virtually no qualified staff to manage its potash exports. That raised fears that the company was trying to gain control over the country's resources and start a pricing war.
Belarus responded by arresting Uralkali CEO Vladislav Baumgertner last week on suspicion of "abusing his powers," and issuing an arrest warrant for Suleyman Kerimov, a Russian billionaire who is the largest shareholder with a 22 percent stake. Analysts have described the arrests and allegations as an act of retaliation.
The venture, which has been accused of fixing the price of potash, suddenly broke up in July when Uralkali accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of allowing state-owned Belaruskali to export potash independently. Uralkali's shares have lost 20 percent since it decided to quit the cartel. Baumgertner sat on the advisory board of that joint trading company, which controlled up to 40 percent of global potash exports.
Uralkali said in a statement Tuesday that Belarusian authorities have launched a "politically motivated persecution" against the company "in order to cause damage to Uralkali, which is the main competitor of state-owned Belaruskali." The company also pledged to contest the actions of Belarusian authorities in court.
Belarusian authorities have denied political motives in the recent arrests and insisted that Baumgertner and Kerimov have harmed the interests of both Russia and Belarus. They allege that Uralkali managers and shareholders sold off some of their shares before quitting the joint venture and bought them back afterwards when the prices were lower.
The Russian government has demanded Baumgertner's immediate release while Belarusian authorities said Tuesday that they would seek Kerimov's arrest through Interpol.
"Minsk is not expecting Kerimov to be arrested and delivered to Minsk in hand-cuffs, but the whole thing could make his life harder," said Minsk-based political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky. "They're hoping that Uralkali will finally decide that the war with Belarus has brought too much damage, and will back down."
Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Minsk, Belarus.