Belarus evading EU sanctions by importing timber to Poland with false documents, finds investigation

Belarus is circumventing sanctions by exporting timber into the EU through Poland using false documentation suggesting it is from Kazakhstan – a country with hardly any forests – an international journalistic investigation has found.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, imports to the EU of timber supposedly from Kazakhstan have boomed, rising in 325-fold in value, from around €387,000 in 2021 to nearly €126 million in 2023.

Imports to Poland, at almost €68 million, accounted for over half that latter figure.

However, an investigation by Radio Free Europe, Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and the Belarusian Investigative Center has found that at least part of these imports from Kazakhstan are actually Belarusian timber that has been falsely documented to evade EU sanctions in place since June 2022.

Documents obtained by the journalists from sources within the industry indicate that Belarus-based companies are falsifying shipping records for timber. One such contract was for almost €1 million between the Kazakh company Nurr-electro and Polish firm PLRBL.

However, after the journalists asked both companies for details of this agreement, Nurr-electro denied having made one of the shipments documented in the records.

“There were no financial transactions under such an agreement,” its lawyer said, quoted by Radio Free Europe. “This is definitely a forgery. We don’t have such a seal.”

Two graphic design experts consulted by the journalists both confirmed that seals and signatures of the Kazakh company and finance ministry had been added to the document using a photo editor.

6/ Виявилося, що підписи та відбитки печаток на документі казахстанської Nurr-electro сфальшовані, і, як зазначили двоє незалежних експертів із графічного дизайну, накладені на документи за допомогою фоторедактора.

— Схеми (@cxemu) March 26, 2024

The Polish Economic Chamber of the Timber Industry has also noticed a significant increase in timber imports from Kazakhstan over the past two years, despite the country – only 1.7% of which is forested, compared to 46% of Belarus – not having a history of production.

The chamber’s director, Piotr Garstka, told Gazeta Wyborcza that Kazakhstan had never previously produced plywood but within two years became the main supplier of the material.

He added that the organisation’s members had noted tenders being awarded for the supply of lumber in which prices were “abnormally low, even below the cost of the raw material”. They have asked Poland’s state assets ministry to “take appropriate remedial measures”.

“The circumvention of sanctions is ongoing and their enforcement is not 100% effective,” said Garstka.

Polish exports to Kyrgyzstan have boomed since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Kyrgyzstan is seen as a route to bypass sanctions on Moscow and many Western countries have increased exports, with Poland and Germany having the largest figures.

See our full report:

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 24, 2024

Poland’s customs service also admitted to the Belarusian Investigative Center that it does not have the capacity to look into all customs declarations and invoices.

Central Asian countries are also seen as routes for EU companies to circumvent EU sanctions on exporting to Russia and Belarus. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Poland’s exports to Kyrgyzstan have increased more than 18-fold.

Last week, Polish fashion giant LPP saw its share price collapse after a report purporting it carried out a “sham” exit from Russia and continues to export its clothes there via Kazakhstan

Polish clothing giant LPP saw 11 billion zloty wiped off its value amid a 36% drop in share price after a report alleged its exit from Russia was a „sham” and it continues to operate there.

The firm calls the claims an „organised disinformation attack”

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) March 15, 2024

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Main image credit: Sakuto / (under CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

Alicja Ptak is senior editor at Notes from Poland and a multimedia journalist. She previously worked for Reuters.

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