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Did Lukashenko misuse EU funds in Belarus?

Roman Goncharenko
March 13, 2021

A video released by the opposition in Belarus accuses President Alexander Lukashenko of misusing EU funds. The European Union has long financially supported a variety of projects in the former Soviet republic.

Belarus — Minsk: Alexander Lukashenko
President Lukashenko has been accused of using EU funds for himselfImage: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

On Monday, the Belarusian opposition Telegram channel Nexta shared a video accusing authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko of having misappropriated EU funds. The clip was also uploaded to YouTube, where it had been viewed nearly 5 million times through Saturday — a staggering figure for a country of 9.5 million people. The opposition newspaper Nascha Niwa praised the video for collating many well-known facts and thereby reaching viewers who otherwise do not closely follow political events in Belarus.

The film could have far-reaching consequences. Viola von Cramon, a German Greens and the deputy chairwoman of the European Parliament's Budgetary Control Committee, expressed concern. "It cannot be permitted that EU funds are misappropriated in order to personally enrich Lukashenko," von Cramon told DW, adding that she plans to investigate the matter. 

EU officials have dismissed the report. In a statement sent to news outlets, Ana Pisonero, a spokesperson for the Neighbourhood and Enlargement program, said media "speculation" over whether Lukashenko had misused EU funds for buildings and residential properties was "completely unfounded and unsupported."

Belarusian officials have not issued a statement regarding the video. DW contacted the Foreign Ministry for comment, yet received no reply. 

Belarus: Lyaskovichi Residence
Lukashenko hosted Ukraine's then-president at the Lyaskovichi Residence in 2017Image: Nikolay Lazarenko/President of the Ukraine Press-S/dpa/picture alliance

Lukashenko's 'luxurious lifestyle'

The 90-minute Nexta video, Lukashenko. Goldmine, professes to blow the lid off of the president's "luxurious lifestyle." According to one segment, he misused EU funds earmarked for environmental projects to build four residential properties in nature reserves. The voice of a male narrator — supposedly that of an unnamed member of Lukashenko's presidential administration — says funds for the river Dzvina were used to renew the riverside promenade, erect water fountains and remodel Vitebsk's Victory Square. The video does not provide any evidence to back up these accusations.  

Another segment concerns various loans granted to Belarus. According to the Nexta video, Lukashenko's allies misused these funds to build houses and sell them to people at a profit. Lukashenko and his aides reportedly pocketed the proceeds. Yet again, no concrete evidence is provided to back up the charge. Nexta founder Stepan Putylo told DW that his organization was unable to release some of its evidence in order to protect sources. He said further revelations would follow.

The European Union has long provided funds to support a variety of projects in the former Soviet republic. Such projects include initiatives to support the health care sector, drive regional development and strengthen civil society. According to euprojects.by, the bloc focuses on supporting the green economy, environmental initiatives and sustainable development. Sums ranging from hundreds of thousands to several million euros have been earmarked for such endeavors. A growing number of initiatives were launched after EU sanctions against Belarus were lifted in 2016.

Belarus — Minsk: Palace of Independence
The Palace of Independence was guarded after the disputed presidential election of 2020 Image: Press service of the President of the Republic of Belarus/dpa

Little EU monitoring

The opposition activist and lawmaker Olga Karatch said Lukashenko and Foreign Minster Vladimir Makei had succeeded in convincing the European Union that funds would support the country's independence from Russia. "Vladimir Makei, Alexander Lukashenko and several others learned how to cleverly manipulate the EU," Karatch said. 

Karatch added that leaders had assumed that the European Union would not seek to closely monitor Belarus. In 2019, Karatch noted, the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) had criticized Belarus in the Council of Europe for failing to meet anti-graft standards.

Though Karatch does not know the exact charges made in the video, she does consider them "99%" accurate. After all, she said, "who would monitor this?" She added that "if the Belarus-based EU officials granting funds were to ever highlight corruption, they would be instantly expelled and their offices shut." 

 Pisonero said the European Union used "internal and external checks and auditing procedures," to track aid funds.

Belarus: Zaslawye Residence
Lukashenko showed Vladimir Putin mementos at the presidential palace in 2019 Image: Sergei Bobylev/dpa/picture alliance

Testy postelection relations

The European Union cut most diplomatic ties with Lukashenko's government after he claimed victory in the August 2020 presidential election and began brutally suppressing the opposition. The EU has rejected the election result. Pisonero said the bloc now limited itself to financially supporting the youth, environmental projects, civil society and independent media.

The Nexta film mentions that several international agencies have dealings in Belarus. Among them are the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), to which the EU contributes capital, the World Bank and European Investment Bank (EIB) — the EU's lending arm.

Pisonero said the EIB had invested €550 million ($660 million) into different projects in Belarus. She said the EIB did not bankroll the government. "There are no grounds for claiming funds were misappropriated," she said. She added that the EBRD had loaned a total of €1.3 billion to Belarus, mainly in the agricultural and infrastructure sectors. In November, the EBRD announced that it would cease financing new state-run projects in Belarus. The EBRD does intend, however, to keep cooperating with the private sector. Both banks deploy "effective measures" to combat corruption, Pisonero said.

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Amanda Paul, a senior analyst with the European Policy Centre who focuses on the region, told DW that a misuse of EU funds by Belarusian officials cannot be ruled out. Nevertheless, Paul said, the European Union always "thoroughly checks where its money ends up." She said the European Union would have to monitor financial flows even more closely.

Von Cramon, the Green MEP, said EU member states such as Hungary and the Czech Republic were also guilty of misusing the funds from the bloc and would have to repay the money. Cramon said Belarus could likewise be made to return the money if the regime were found to have misused funds.

This article has been translated from German.