Vladislav Baumgertner has the fluent English, Western business degrees and meteoric career that typify Russia’s young executive elite, but the boss of Uralkali, the world’s largest potash producer, is now more in need of Soviet-era survival skills.
For two weeks Baumgertner, 41, has been held in a dank Stalin-era Belarusian cell, facing up to 10 years in jail on charges of abusing power and seeking gain at the expense of Belarus while chairman of a joint venture cartel, Belarusian Potash Company (BPC), which until last month controlled Russian and Belarusian exports of the fertiliser ingredient.
Belarus, which has long bridled at what it believes is Uralkali’s aim to take over its own producer Belaruskali, was angered by Uralkali’s abrupt exit from BPC last month, a move likely to lower prices, hit a key source of hard currency and hurt Belarus’s rickety economy.
The Belarusian Investigative Committee has not provided details on the charge, though among comments it made at the time of Baumgertner’s arrest are allegations that he and others at BPC provided discounts on product to some buyers without telling the Belarusians, redirected ships to take Uralkali product instead of Belaruskali’s, and cancelled some BPC contracts, promising partners a Uralkali alternative at lower prices.
Uralkali denies any wrongdoing and has said previously that Baumgertner did not have the powers the Belarus authorities say he abused.
After travelling to Belarus for talks less than a month after pulling out of BPC, Baumgertner was handcuffed at the airport as he was leaving on August 26 and thrust into the heart of an acrimonious battle between Moscow and Minsk.
He, along with Uralkali’s chairman, former Kremlin chief-of-staff Alexander Voloshin, and the company’s leading shareholder, Suleiman Kerimov, had been invited to Belarus by the country’s prime minister. Only Baumgertner went.
He is being held in the pre-trial detention centre of the Belarusian KGB, known to locals as ‘Amerikanka’, or the American one, apparently after a Chicago jail.
His requests have been for unspecified medication, and for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, an 864-page classic that will fill several long days. Conditions are likely to be tough for the slight Baumgertner.
Anatoly Lebedko, Belarusian politician