Russia-Belarus potash dispute ignites diplomatic row

Tue Aug 27, 2013 10:49am EDT
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By Douglas Busvine and Andrei Makhovsky

MOSCOW/MINSK (Reuters) - Russia demanded on Tuesday the release of the head of Russian company Uralkali, whose arrest in Belarus threatens to turn a business dispute that shook the $20-billion global potash market into a major diplomatic row.

Vladislav Baumgertner, chief executive of the world's largest potash producer, was detained on Monday at the airport of the Belarusian capital Minsk after being invited to secret talks with Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich.

Television footage released by the Belarusian Investigative Committee, the former Soviet republic's top crime-fighting agency, showed Baumgertner being searched, his legs spread and hands against a wall. He was later pictured handcuffed.

President Alexander Lukashenko appears to have taken it as a personal affront when Uralkali quit a cartel last month with a Belarusian state firm producing potash, a fertilizer ingredient.

The main owner of Uralkali, which controls 20 percent of the world market, is Suleiman Kerimov, a billionaire with close ties to President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin administration.

Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned the Belarusian ambassador to issue a rebuke, warning of unspecified consequences for bilateral ties. The two countries allow passport-free travel and are members of a free-trade zone.

"It is impermissible to detain a person on his way home after he came for talks at the invitation of the Belarusian government," Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told Interfax news agency.

Russia's ambassador to Minsk asked prosecutors on Tuesday afternoon to release Baumgertner. Officials said they would review the case, but stressed they were dealing with a crime that had inflicted severe economic damage on Belarus.   Continued...

Russia's ambassador to Belarus, Alexander Surikov, sits in a car after visiting the General Prosecutor's office in central Minsk August 27, 2013. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko