WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A member of the Belarus opposition movement urged the European Union on Monday to keep sanctions against a Belarusian state fertilizer producer, warning that lifting them would generate a $1.5 billion windfall for Alexander Lukashenko's regime as it supports Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Pavel Latushka, a former Belarusian minister of culture who is now in exile in Poland, said he feared the EU might be tempted to lift sanctions against Belaruskali, which is one of the world’s largest exporters of potash fertilizers.
Latushka heads an opposition group, the National Anti-Crisis Management, which has been documenting what it alleges is Lukashenko’s participation in a scheme to deport Ukrainian orphans to camps in Belarus.
The team has been working to bring international attention to its findings in an attempt to stop the alleged deportations and hold Lukashenko to account.
“Belaruskali is the firm that finances the deportation of Ukrainian children,” Latushka, who was sentenced to 18 years of prison in absentia in March by a court in Belarus, told The Associated Press.
His appeal comes as EU foreign ministers were meeting for informal talks expected to focus on sanctions against Belaruskali and the Belarusian Potash Company, which exports Belaruskali's products.
“This is an opportunity for Lukashenko to generate at least one and a half billion dollars in revenue each year, which he will spend on the war,” Latushka said.
The group alleges that the Ukrainian orphans deported to Belarus undergo a process of Russification before being sent to Russia for adoption, something they say amounts to violations of the Geneva conventions against war crimes.
Lukashenko's government denies those claims.
“The allegation of Belarus’ involvement in the forced removal of Ukrainian children looks absolutely wild and inappropriate, even against the backdrop of the usual accusations and demands toward us that have nothing to do with reality,” said Anatoly Glaz, spokesman of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.
Latushka and his team are collecting evidence and bringing it to international organizations, hoping that the International Criminal Court will issue an arrest warrant for Lukashenko as it did for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The ICC in March issued arrest warrants for both Putin and his commissioner for children's rights. Judges in The Hague said they found "reasonable grounds to believe" the two were responsible for war crimes, specifically the unlawful deportation and transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.
The Belarusian authorities have said that Belarus would host more than 1,000 children aged 6-15 from the partially occupied Donbas in eastern Ukraine for “convalescence.” The first 350 of those children arrived in Belarus in late April. The authorities have allotted at least four summer camps for them.
Officials haven't specified for how long exactly the Ukrainian children would stay in Belarus, but say the decision was made at the presidential level.
Lukashenko’s press service said it underscored his “commitment to the ideas of humanism and mercy towards children in need of care and support.”
Within the framework of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, special programs were approved aimed at relocating Ukrainian children. Financial support is provided by Belaruskali.
The placement of children and logistics in Belarus are handled by a pro-government activist, Aleksey Talai, a Paralympian who has set up a charitable foundation.
“Belarus gives children peace of mind, help and continues to provide support to the regions affected by hostilities,” Talai said.
Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia.