President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko continues to raise stakes in the conflict with Moscow.
After inconclusive negotiations on gas prices held last week, the Committee of State Control (KGC) of Belarus carried out searches at the head office of Belgazprombank, the former head of which, Viktor Babariko, decided to run for president in the upcoming August 9 elections.
15 top managers of the bank, which is 99.6% owned by the Russian gas giant Gazprom and Gazprombank, are suspected of creating an organized criminal group in order to withdraw funds abroad.
According to Belarus 1 TV channel, another head of the bank, the head of the regional directorate, Sergei Karmizov, was detained in Mogilev on Sunday. A criminal case of embezzlement by abuse of office on a particularly large scale has been opened against him. He is also charged with manipulating loans.
Three days earlier, the KGC's Department of Financial Investigations had opened a criminal case into tax evasion on a particularly large scale and the legalization of funds obtained by criminal means.
Natalia Eismont, a spokeswoman for the Belarusian president, said the detainees were giving confessions, including against the former head of the bank, Victor Babarico. "Huge sums of money, securities, gold were seized," she said.
According to the KGC, the security forces seized $4 million in cash and securities worth more than $500,000 from the bank's Minsk office.
As part of the investigation, 150 paintings worth $20 million were seized and included to the case, including Marc Chagall's Green Landscape and Chaim Soutine's Eva. They were part of the corporate collection of Belgazprombank.
"I will call Interpol after the results of the investigation and say, well, analyze these documents," Lukashenko said on Sunday. " Russians, Americans will be called here, Europeans will be called here, and let them draw conclusions whether our law enforcement agencies comply with our laws.
Earlier, the Belarusian authorities forcibly changed the leadership of the bank, after which Gazprom and Gazprombank issued a joint statement accusing Minsk of "gross violation of the law" of Belarus and the agreement on the Eurasian Economic Union. On the same day there was information about failures in the work of Belgazprombank itself. The activity of the crowdfunding platform MolaMola, whose payments went through this bank, was blocked.
The illegal actions "directly affect the rights and legitimate interests of Russian shareholders" as well as all customers and depositors, Gazprombank and Gazprom stressed.
Babariko, who has been willing to compete with Lukashenko for presidency, has not yet been given any procedural status in the investigation. According to him, the situation around the bank is of a bespoke political nature, and he was ready "for provocations."
Lukashenko, for his part, said that the Belgazprombank's inspection is carried out on his behalf and expressed confidence that Babariko was running for president to become a political prisoner. "And now it is advantageous to engage in politics in order to become a prisoner of conscience. That's why he went there. But it won't help him," Lukashenko said.
Belarus demands that the price of Russian gas be reduced from 127 to 80 dollars per thousand cubic meters, referring to the fact that on the European market spot quotes have collapsed to the levels of 40-50 dollars. Gazprom, in turn, demands that Belarus repays the debt for gas in the amount of 165 million dollars, which Minsk does not recognize.
The talks held on June 9 between the heads of the Energy Ministry Alexander Novak and Viktor Karankevich ended with no results.