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Belarus: EU rejects claim that European funds financed Lukashenko's property 'goldmine'

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, sits on stage talking to a group of actors during his visit to the Yanka Kupala National Theater in Minsk, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, sits on stage talking to a group of actors during his visit to the Yanka Kupala National Theater in Minsk, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021   -   Copyright  Maxim Guchek/AP
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EU agencies have vehemently rejected claims that European funds were used to finance the luxury properties of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, as alleged in a new documentary film released this week.

"Suggestions that EU assistance has gone for buildings or residences used by the Lukashenko regime that have appeared in the media are completely unfounded and baseless," European Commission Spokesperson Ana Pisonero said in a written statement sent to Euronews on Thursday.

"Lukashenko Goldmine" by Belarusian blogger Stepan Putilo and his team purports to expose the lavish lifestyle of the country's ruler, claiming it is financed by corruption.

The film was viewed by over one million people in the first 12 hours after it was posted on Telegram channel NEXTA.

The film-makers say they have found evidence that the Head of State owed 18 residences, a huge fleet of vehicles, four planes and a helicopter.

Yet these properties are allegedly invisible to tax authorities: according to the film, Lukashenko has always kept the line "personal property" on his tax statement empty.

The allegations are based on documents and testimonies of journalists and anonymous administration officials.

While authorities have not reacted to the film’s release, Lukashenko said last week that his opponents were plotting to disseminate a fake story in order to destabilise the regime.

Lukashenko has ruled the country for 27 years. Protests began in August 2020 when he claimed his sixth term as president in an election marred by allegations of widespread fraud.

Lukashenko’s government has harshly repressed post-election protests, the largest of which attracted up to 200,000 people.

EU: 'Baseless claims'

From 2014 to 2020, the EU allocated almost €3.5 billion to Belarus in a bid to keep Minsk away from Moscow and draw the former Soviet Republic closer to the West, according to the film-makers.

The presidential elections in August last year, which Brussels condemned as rigged, and the subsequent crackdown on opponents, showed the depth of delusion.

For many years, NEXTA journalists claim, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (ERBD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) granted Belarus funds intended for economic development, entrepreneurship and environmental programmes.

Instead of using the funds for their intended purpose, Lukashenko distributed them to his close circle, according to the film-makers.

The journalists allege that housing was built with European money, then sold to ordinary citizens on a mortgage ranging from 8 to 24%. The funds allocated for environmental programmes, according to an anonymous source in the administration cited in the film, went among other things to the maintenance of the residences of the Head of State in nature reserves.

But the above claims were vehemently rejected by the European agencies cited in the film.

The implementation of EU grant assistance in Belarus "does not involve financial transfers to the State," EC Spokesperson Ana Pisonero said in a statement, noting that it was channelled through civil society or international organisations.

"The EIB has not made any disbursements of any loans in the public sector to the Republic of Belarus. Consequently, there is no ground to claim that EIB financing has been used improperly," the EC official said.

"A substantial number of internal and external control procedures are in place including checks and audits to ensure the correct implementation of funds," the statement continued.

When contacted by Euronews, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said:

"The EBRD is investing in private sector projects in Belarus but has not carried out any sovereign lending in the country for some time and not considering new sovereign projects in the country."

"The EBRD has robust procurement and integrity due diligence procedures, which have proved to be effective over the past 3 decades of the Bank’s existence. We have confidence in the approach that we have taken in Belarus over recent years," the statement read.

"I think the European Union has learned its lesson," said Viola von Cramont-Taubadel, a German MEP from the Green Party.

"Lukashenko continues to pursue a policy of autocracy and dictatorship, and in recent months we have seen particular cruelty. This made any cooperation impossible. All programmes and funds are frozen," Cramont-Taubadel continued.

Last month, the EU prolonged sanctions targeting dozens of Belarus officials, including President Lukashenko, over allegations of fraud in the country's presidential election and the crackdown on peaceful protesters that followed.

'I have nothing but Belarus'

According to the film, the so-called "People's President" is fond of luxury brands. His Patek Philippe watches change over the years but invariably remain expensive. He enjoys offering custom-made Montegrappa pens to his relatives.

Neither his luxury cars worth €4 million nor his Boeings (737 and 767), business jet Gulfstream G550 and helicopter, which cost hundreds of millions of euros, appear on any of his tax declarations, the movie claims.

The film-makers also report that a large part of real estate properties at Lukashenko's disposal were built during the years of his presidency using corruption schemes.

The Palace of Independence in Minsk drew the journalists' attention. The building, which was inspired by the palace complex of the President of Turkmenistan known as "Oguzkhan," allegedly cost taxpayers at least €250 million. Lukashenko said that "not a single ruble of the budget was invested in it."

The building has become a symbol of the tensions that have followed the elections last year. On August 23, footage showed Lukashenko and his son Kolya arriving at the palace by helicopter, waving a machine gun and asking if any of their opponents were still “there”.

According to the film-makers, the Palace of Independence serves no administrative purpose. It features, as is customary in other presidential residences, a sauna, a swimming pool, lounges, a winter garden, a wine cellar, an armoury, a bedroom for the head of state and his son Kolya, as well as a full staff of attendants. Gold is everywhere in the property, from the coat of arms of the Republic of Belarus to the toilets.

EU: 'Cooperation impossible'

The film says EU funds contributed to financing Lukashenko's regime and his expensive lifestyle.

From 2014 to 2020, the EU allocated almost €3.5 billion to Belarus in a bid to keep Minsk away from Moscow and draw the former Soviet Republic closer to West, according to the film-makers.

The presidential elections in August last year, which Brussels condemned as rigged, and the subsequent crackdown on opponents, showed the depth of the delusion.

For many years, NEXTA journalists say, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank granted gratuitous or 1% loans to Belarus. The funds were intended for economic development, entrepreneurship and environmental programmes.

Instead of using the funds for their intended purpose, Lukashenko distributed them to his close circle, according to the film-makers.

Housing was built with European money, then sold to ordinary citizens on a mortgage ranging from 8 to 24%. The funds allocated for environmental programmes, according to an anonymous source in the administration, went among other things to the maintenance of the residences of the Head of State in nature reserves.

"I think the European Union has learned its lesson," said Viola von Cramont-Taubadel, a German MEP from the Green Party.

"Lukashenko continues to pursue a policy of autocracy and dictatorship, and in recent months we have seen particular cruelty. This made any cooperation impossible. All programmes and funds are frozen," Cramont-Taubadel continued.

Russia analogy

Many note the similarity of "Lukashenko Goldmine" with a video released by allies of poisoned Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny after his imprisonment, which sparked mass protests in Russia earlier this year.

The video showed a palace allegedly belonging to President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin rejected the claim.

The people behind NEXTA

22-year old Putilo, the founder of NEXTA, launched his first YouTube channel at the age of 15. His work initially focused on music but he became interested in politics in 2017. At the time, he promised to uncover "all the trash of Lukashenko's Belarus."

In February 2018, a criminal case was opened against the blogger for "insulting the President" in his YouTube videos.

He was in Poland, where he studied at university and has not returned to Belarus since then.

The NEXTA Telegram channel was created in the fall of 2018. Last year, it became a key information source on protests held in the aftermath of presidential elections.

In October last year, Belarusian authorities labelled the channel as "extremist" and banned publishing or reposting information with the NEXTA logo.