A few weeks ago the Swedish radio could reveal that during the summer and autumn of 2007, the company Chess Bel smuggled nearly 20,000 tons of petroleum products under false terms out of Belarus in order to avoid paying customfees. The oil products were later bought by the Swedish owned oil gigant Gunvor.
Chess Bel is located outside of Vitebsk, in northern Belarus. According to official information, the company has American owners. That is also what President Mihail Kravtsov claims:
– We have just one founder Chess LTD in USA. Said Mihail Kravtsov to Belarusian journalist Katerina Andreeva who interviewed him in Vitebsk
But what me Kravtsov says is not accurate. The Swedish Radio has come across a document that shows that Chess Bel is founded by two companies – The US company, mentioned by Kravtsov, and a Russian company in St. Petersburg.
The Russian parent company was controlled by two businessmen from St. Petersburg with connections to the infamous mafia in the city. They owned a strip club, and used to run an oil factory that lacked permission and was forced to close after extensive environmental breaches. One of the businessmen has been pointed out by a former police chief as a leader of a criminal syndicate. Both of them have been suspected of crimes related to the oil industry.
In 2001 while Chess Bel was investing in Belarus, one of the founders of Chess Bel was arrested suspected of extortion in Russia. He was later, according to media reports, released after appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a letter.
But Chess Bel:s CEO claims to know nothing about the two businessmen.
– No comment. I know the people I deal with. I have been CEO since 2005 and can assure you that we are a law-abiding and totally legitimate company, said Kravtsov.
On the wall behind the CEO hangs an award for best exporting company, signed by President Lukashenko. Three years in a row, the company has won the prestigious award.
The Swedish Radio investigation revealed that Chess Bel enjoyed protection from the country's political leadership. The Belarusian customspolice investigatated the smuggling scheme as early as 2007, but on behalf of the president Lukashenka, his right hand, Deputy Prime Minister Semahska stopped the investigation, so that the smuggling could continue.
According to former KGB agent Andrei Molchan who said he worked with the investigation the interference was due to corruption:
– This is quite simply corruption at the highest level of the state, which hurts the country’s economy. It’s about the top people in the government protecting those involved, says Andrei Molchan.
The oil products were bought by oil trading gigant Gunvor, and shipped to Europe as "russian unleaded gasoline" according to document from the Estonian customs.
Swedish-owned oil trading company Gunvor has confirmed that they purchased the oil products which they call a "blendstock for gasoline" but claim they did not deal directly with Chess Bel. They claim that they know nothing about the oil products being smuggled out of the country. The company's CEO and majority shareholder Torbjörn Törnqvist, who at the time of Swedish Radio’s report was Honorary Consul in Geneva for Sweden, was forced to leave the post after a conversation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.