Belarus issues arrest warrant for Russian tycoon

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Authorities in Belarus issued an arrest warrant Monday for a Russian billionaire who co-owns the Moscow-based potash company Uralkali as a power struggle escalated over exports of the fertilizer.

Belarus’ Investigative Committee said it had charged Suleyman Kerimov in absentia with “organizing the abuse of power” and issued an arrest warrant for him. The statement came a week after Uralkali’s CEO, Vladislav Baumgertner, was arrested in Belarus on suspicion of “abusing his powers.”

Forbes magazine has estimated that Kerimov, who owns 22 percent of the company, is worth $7.1 billion. If found guilty, the 47-year-old billionaire could face ten years in prison.

In July, Uralkali, Russia’s largest producer of this key ingredient in fertilizer, pulled out of a trading venture with its partner in Belarus, raising fears in the former Soviet state of a pricing war with Russia. Analysts have described the arrests and allegations by Belarus as an act of retaliation against Moscow.

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. Baumgertner sat on the advisory board of the joint trading company, which controlled up to 40 percent of the global potash exports.

Uralkali’s shares have lost 20 percent since it decided to quit the cartel and the price of potash has fallen by 5 percent to $390 a ton. Uralkali executives have said they expect the price to drop to $300 by the end of the year.

Belarusian authorities said they suspect Uralkali officials of planning to cause a drop in the potash market by quitting the joint venture. Investigators in Belarus claim that Uralkali deliberately caused a market crash in order “to launch a strike on Belarusian producers, who were already regarded as competitors.”

Russian authorities, meanwhile, have demanded Baumgertner’s immediate release. Moscow last week threatened to ban Belarusian dairy imports and said it would cut oil exports to its neighbor, although it denied that these steps were motivated by the attack on Uralkali.

Uralkali’s shares were down 0.9 percent Monday afternoon Moscow time.

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