Will German companies stop cooperating with Belarus? | TBEN | 21.11.2020

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The German family business Eickhoff manufactures equipment for the mining industry and supplies it to various countries, from Russia to Australia. One of its partners is potash producer Belaruskali, one of the world’s largest fertilizer manufacturers. This state-owned company in Soligorsk, about 120 km (75 miles) from the Belarusian capital, Minsk, has more than 16,000 employees and is an important source of income for Belarus. Eickhoff says he has been supplying Belaruskali since 1975, “whatever the political situation in the country”.

That’s why people waved red and white flags outside the company’s headquarters in Bochum, North Rhine-Westphalia in early October. The activists demanded the freezing of German deliveries to Belaruskali to express their opposition to the violation of the rights of the striking workers in Soligorsk.

Their demands would eventually be met. On Thursday, the EU decided on new sanctions against the regime of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. This time the sanctions will be directed against Belarusian companies that support Lukashenko. It is not yet clear which companies will be put on the sanctions list. What is clear, however, is that European companies will no longer be allowed to do business with them.

Belarusian demonstrators protested in front of the Hauni firm in Hamburg

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‘Business is business’

Some Belaruskali workers have been on strike since August 17, calling for Lukashenko’s resignation and an end to violence against peaceful protesters. When the strike began, management put pressure on the workers by freezing bonuses and arresting the strikers. At present, more than 80 people are on strike, according to strike committee spokesperson Gleb Sandros, currently abroad.

He was the first to try to reach Belaruskali’s foreign partners, including the German company Eickhoff. At the end of September, Sandros informed these business partners in writing of the crackdown on the strikers: “We are not asking them to break the contracts but to let them stand for only two or three months, until the crackdown on us ceases. “, Sandros told me.

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A few days later, Belarusians living in Germany took his initiative and also sent a letter to Eickhoff. Having received no response, they went to the company’s headquarters in Bochum and handed over a letter. A little later, the managing director, Ulf Achenbach, came to see the demonstrators. “He said he supports the democratic movement in Belarus, but business is business and these issues need to be resolved at the political level,” said one of the action participants, Elisabeth Chigrin, director of ‘an IT company in Bochum.

In Eickhoff’s official response to the protesters, which was made available to TBEN, the company also pointed out that a termination of the supply relationship would not have a major impact on Belaruskali, but would have a negative effect. on underground security and local income. people. Gleb Sandros considers these concerns to be absurd. In response to a request from TBEN, the company declined to comment further on this matter.

 Law enforcement officers spraying protesters at protest in Minsk

People have been demonstrating in the streets of Minsk since August

Read more: Belarusian activists create alternative ’embassy’

Good trade relations with Belarus

So far, Eickhoff is the only company to have even reacted to letters from Belarusians living in Germany, according to Anton Malkin. Along with other compatriots, he called on more than 30 German companies, including large companies such as Bayer, Siemens, Daimler and Commerzbank, to stop cooperating with state-owned companies in Belarus and under the Lukashenko regime.

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When asked by TBEN, Commerzbank said its business in Belarus is to secure and finance German and European exports to the country. “We subject all Belarusian companies to a restrictive individual assessment,” the bank said in a statement. Siemens assured that the company is closely monitoring the situation in Belarus, but did not want to comment on existing customers and contracts in the country, only saying that its “contractual obligations in Belarus are aimed at developing the country’s infrastructure for the benefit of the Belarusian people. “The automobile group Daimler, for its part, gave assurances that it” would comply with all applicable sanctions and embargoes against Belarus. “

Germany is one of the four most important trading partners of Belarus. According to Belarusian statistical authority Belstat, the total volume of imports from Germany in 2019 was around 1.5 billion euros ($ 1.3 billion). German companies mainly supply technical equipment, chemicals, vehicles and plastics.

“It is with concern that we note that the political conflicts in Belarus have already led to a massive deterioration of economic conditions,” wrote Oliver Hermes, president of the German Association of Oriental Businesses (OADW), in a statement. “For Belarus, there is an urgent need to initiate a rapid political solution to the conflict to counter a lasting loss of confidence among its own population, local businesses and international investors.”

When TBEN asked him how he assessed the ongoing cooperation of German companies with Belarusian state-owned companies under such conditions, Hermes simply replied that he could not comment on business decisions. Vladimir Augustinsky, head of the representative office of German companies in Belarus, also declined to comment.

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Businesses need a signal

In the hope of changing Eickhoff’s attitude, Belarusian activists in Germany visited the company’s headquarters in Bochum twice more, but there was no reaction. Meanwhile, there are similar actions ahead of other German companies.

These include Hamburg-based Hauni Maschinenbau, one of the leading manufacturers of machinery for the tobacco industry. The company supplies, among others, the largest Belarusian state tobacco factory, Neman, in Grodno, in western Belarus, not far from the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Hauni did not respond to letters and protests from activists. The company’s response to a TBEN investigation said Hauni continuously checks all of its business partners for domestic and international sanctions lists and strictly adheres to those sanctions. “This also applies to our activities in Belarus,” the company said.

At a recent rally in solidarity with protesters in Belarus in the western city of Cologne, Jörg Mährle, regional director of the Federation of German Trade Unions (DGB), called on German and European companies not to cooperate with Belarus. Some representatives of the Belarusian community in Germany also hope to address these demands to local unions and politicians, while drawing the attention of the German public to the fact that companies are cooperating, as they say, with “the bloody Lukashenko regime”.

For this to change, German companies need a signal from above, says Elisabeth Chigrin. “If Germany declares at the political level that it will no longer supply Belarus with products because human rights are violated there, then it will be easier for companies to stop supplying,” she said. , before adding that it would not then be their decision, but political from above.

This article was adapted from German.

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