As per the recent proclamation made by the Lithuanian government, the Belarusian potash will get banned across the country from February 1, 2022. How will this termination of potash transit affect the economies of Belarus and Lithuania?
Belaruskali’s potash fertilizers are very significant exports for the country as they are the vital source of foreign exchange earnings for the latter. According to the National Statistical Committee reports, in 2020, Belarus earned 2,410,311.5 thousand dollars by exporting potash fertilizers. This amounts to 8% of the total volume of Belarusian exports and about 4% of the country’s GDP (60.3 billion dollars). Lithuania plays a crucial role in Belarusian potash exports because the bulk of Belaruskali’s products are shipped through the port in Klaipeda, Lithuania. That’s why the Lithuanian government’s decision to refuse transit access to Belarusian potash from February 1, 2022, will hit the latter’s economy.
Losses will not affect Belaruskali:
Usually, Belarus receives 2-3 billion dollars from its potash exports, but Lithuania’s recent termination of the transit agreement will result in the loss of 80% in the expected receiving. This will eventually decrease the GDP growth by 1-2%. Moreover, Katerina Bornukova, academic director, BEROC(Kyiv), analyzed that the losses will be incurred by different domains simultaneously, ranging from the Chemical industry, wholesale trade, Belarusian railways etc.
Much depends on Russia’s position:
The vulnerable Belarusian position has made it turn their eyes towards Russia, Belarus’s last and ultimate saviour. Therefore, it has become quite crucial for the latter to search for other alternative routes for the transhipment of potash after the closing down of Klaipeda port of Lithuania. But contrary to it, Russia hasn’t made it stand clear on the matter and still refrains from taking anyone’s side openly. Moreover, Vladimir Putin stated that Russia would become an opportunist in international fertilizer trade and make money by taking advantage of the market conditions.
In addition, Putin also had a meeting with the CEO of Uralchem, Dmitry Mazepin, on January 13, but its conclusions are not revealed but it can be averred that if anything positive happens in their talk, it will add to the problem of Belarus. Uralchem holds 80% shares of Uralkali and is the biggest competitor of Belaruskali. Moreover, the current baffling of Russia between Lithuania and Belarus is a cause of concern for the latter because Russia has not made any announcement or an official statement of helping Minsk in getting out of the current crisis.
On the other hand, the market is getting flooded with several apprehensions by politically exposed people. Pavel Slyunkin, Analyst of the European Council on Foreign Relations, firmly believes that Belaruskali should now go for the northern Russian ports for potash exportation because all other ports are occupied in the region Uralkali. Depending on the future political scenario, it may get possible that an agreement is reached between Belarus and Russia, which will free some Russian ports specifically for Belarus only, costing millions of euros.
In Counter reaction, Igor Udovitsky, owner of the BKT terminal, Klaipeda, has advised Minsk to file a lawsuit to prove the illegality of the termination. The decision of the Minsk arbitration council will be binding on all competing parties and courts, so Lithuania will need to restore transit access.
Do Belarus and Russia redirect Potash?
In August 2021, the head of the Belarusian Ministry of Transport, Alexei Avramenko, stated the readiness of Belarus to use the ports of the Leningrad region and Murmansk for the exportation of potash in the Asiatic region if, shortly, Lithuania refuses to provide transit access. The ban imposed on Belarus from February 1, 2022, has led it to seek Russian help, but still, Russia has not come out clearly on this matter. It hasn’t stated whether it will help Belarus or not? And if it happens then, such a reorientation will need time to rectify the problems associated with the transhipment. Moreover, some additional time will also be required to get done with all the legal aspects about how the export and transhipment will take place, keeping confidential the identity of the companies involved in these operations. The secrecy will protect the companies from any European and American attack, analysed by Sergey Kondratyev, Deputy Head of the Economics Department of the Institute of Energy and Finance Foundation.
There are several hurdles too in this reorientation to take place. The distance increased from Klaipeda to Russian ports will also enhance the payment amount of the wagon’s operators for the transhipment, which will adversely affect the profit of Belarus from the sale of potash fertilizers. The distance to Ust-Luga is 55 times longer, to Murmansk – 3.3 times, said Vladimir Savchuk, Deputy Director-General of the Institute for Problems of Natural Monopolies (IPEM). Moreover, in Russia, there is a shortage of port facilities for the export of fertilizers, due to which Russian companies themselves use the ports of the Baltic countries. That’s why Belarus will need to purchase the slots booked by Russian companies in the Russian ports. Sergey Kondratyev added that this wouldn’t be a matter of expense for the Belaruskali because tens of millions of euros a year is not a very big figure for the company, keeping in my mind the scale of their business.
“Belaruskali and Uralkali may join hands again: Igor Udovitsky
However, the journey of Belaruskali from Belarus to Russian ports will not be an easy one; it will have to cross several odds like Uralkali and other counterparties. To attract buyers, Belaruskali will be expected to provide heavy discounts. That’s why there is a severe apprehension by Igor Udovitsky, a Lithuanian businessman, that Belaruskali will have to make “many compromises” with Uralkali, which may also result in the unification of the two shortly. Earlier, both have worked together but cut off the ties after the 2013’s scandal in which Uralkali reproached Belaruskali potash workers for dumping.
Time for experimentation
Moreover, Belarus can also go for different experimentations after the Lithuanian termination of potash transit, for ex: supplying potash fertilizers to China. The same thing also happened in 2020 when the Belarusian potash company supplied potash fertilizers to China via the Northern Sea Route, unlike the previous routes following Baltic ports and Suez Canal. Therefore, assumptions are hanging around that Belarus is again likely to supply potash to China through trains, which will increase transportation costs. But the hikes in potash fertilizer prices can easily bear the additional costs. Katerine Bornukova added that now everything rests on the availability of trains, which will not compensate the volumes supplied through Lithuanian Routes. Moreover, intelligent China is looking forward to take advantage of sanctions imposed and bargain heavily in signing a new contract with Belarus in the wake of the expiration of the previous one that ended last December.
Direct and indirect losses
Sergei Kondratyev has also drawn attention to the direct and indirect losses Belarus will face. Of course, direct losses are tens of millions of euros due to snatching of the transit access, but the leading cause of concern would be the indirect losses. The sanctions imposed by the EU and the termination of transit by Lithuania have worsened the condition significantly. The termination has left Belarus with Russia as the only option available for the transhipments of potash, due to which the latter missed the opportunity of demanding more attractive offers from Moscow.
Indirect losses per year can reach 80-100 million euros which will act as a financial suppressor to the economy of Belarus. Furthermore, European Union sanctions have made Belarus tranship its export cargoes only through the ports of Russia. This is facilitated by the poor relations with Ukraine and the Baltic nations staunch support to the EU sanctions. Sergei Kondratyev also emphasized that the value of Russian ports has increased because that’s the only route left for the Belarusian potash export. The companies responsible for the operation of this route may demand more attractive conditions from the latter, considering their risks.
Apart from Belarus, Lithuania will also suffer badly with this termination. It will lose the status of a great transit power after the departure of Belaruskali, which it maintained even after a significant part of Russian cargoes in the 2000s. Moreover, the country is itself not sure whether the Belarusian potash will cease to be transported in the country after February 1, 2022, as the Lithuanian Transport Minister, Marius Skouodis, himself expressed his dilemma on the same. As per him, the effective ceasing can only be done after the sanctions imposed by the EU. Finally, the country’s bad relations with China will result in transhipment losses and confine it only to the domestic needs of the Lithuanian economy, which is very small.
The Central Bank of Lithuania has calculated losses
Amidst the sanctions issue, The Central Bank of Lithuania came up with an estimation that a halt in the Belarusian commodity flow will result in a 0.9% decrease the country’s GDP in three years.
The same opinion was shared by Swedbank Chief Economist Nerijus Mačiulis and Ione Kaländene, Head of the Research and Analysis Department of the Entrepreneurship Development Agency Versli Lietuva. Former believed that due to the loss of transit, gross domestic product growth in 2022 will be slower. But the slowdown in growth will be slight and amount to 0.2-0.3%. Therefore, the planned growth of the economy easily compensates for the short-term fall. He stated that loss would be shared by different state-funded institutions like the Latvian railways’ company, the port of Klaipeda and several other companies. Of course, the state budget will lose some of the income, but there will be no significant macroeconomic effect.
And Lone Kalandene opined that although the volume of transportation of Belaruskali fertilizers in Lithuania is vast, the losses incurred will be easily compensated because the leading carrier companies are state-owned. This will result in a little more burden on the state budget but will shield the Lithuanian economy.
Klaipeda port will face difficulties.
Algis Latakas, the head of the port, held the view that the ceasing of the transit of Belarusian commodities would incur heavy damages for both the port companies and the port authority, which cannot be compensated quickly. That’s why he asks for an assistance to be provided to both port companies and port authorities.
Igor Udovitsky, a Lithuanian entrepreneur, also believed that the sudden termination of the transit access would result in billions of euros, direct loss to Lithuania as 1 million tons of potash transit passes through Lithuania and the port of Klaipeda every month. As per his calculations, the loss of the contract with Belaruskali will result in total damage of more than 1 billion euros. He also mentioned the calculated loss on his Facebook page. Until now, the port of Klaipeda has been the leader in cargo transhipment in the Baltic States and was among the top 5 most efficient ports in the Baltic basin.
The status which Klaipeda achieved in the backdrop of the industrial crisis in Latvia and the shortage of cargo in the Eastern Baltic will become challenging to achieve again.
The head of the Association of Lithuanian Marine Loading Companies, Vaidotas Šilejka, also supported Mr Igor Udovitsky and expressed the irreplaceable position of Belarusian fertilizers for Klaipeda. According to him, the port will lose about 10 million tons of cargo per year which will undoubtedly shake the entire port of Klaipeda and the enterprises operating on its territory. On losing such a significant amount of cargo, port companies will need more than a year to reorient their activities as there are no alternatives available at the moment. Furthermore, the termination will also have wide-ranging implications in different domains and pose geopolitical challenges and changes in the global macroeconomic trends.
The audit and consulting company Ernst & Young also estimated that in 2019, due to the transhipment of Belarusian cargo in the port of Klaipeda, the country’s budget was replenished by 155 million euros (this is 1.4% of all revenues). At the end of 2019, 14.1 million tons of Belarusian cargo (30.5% of the total cargo turnover) were transhipped at the port, in 2020 – 15.6 million tons (32% of the total cargo turnover). In addition, the processing of Fertilizers of Belaruskali amounted to 25.5% of the annual transhipment in Klaipeda. According to preliminary reports of the Port Directorate, in 2021, commodity flows from Belarus accounted for about 30% of all cargo.
Latvian Railways are waiting for fines and reduced profits
This political manoeuvring of the Baltic countries will cost Lithuania also dearly. Stopping the transit of Belaruskali will be a severe problem for Lithuanian Railways as well because it was a valuable customer of the latter. The company may lose more than 20% of the commodity flow.
At the end of 2021, Mantas Bartuška, who was the head of the Latvian Railways at that time, said that the company would lose 60 million euros of annual revenue and the entire logistics chain as a whole – more than 100 million euros.
Former Lithuanian Prime Minister and Chairman of the Democratic Party of the Seimas of Lithuania Saulius Skvernelis believes that the damage to the Lithuanian economy from the rupture of the contract for the transit of Belaruskali fertilizers through the territory of the republic may amount to “from one to several billion euros.” He also said that Lithuanian Railways would have to pay a fine of 600 million for breaking the contract with Belaruskali.
Commenting on Skvernelis’ statement, Sergey Kondratyev said: “600 million is a very, very large figure. There is a possibility that Lithuanian Railways will try to somehow protect itself from this fine by challenging it in court, for example, or by obtaining protection from the government.”
Suppose the problem persists longer for 2-4 years. In that case, Lithuanian Railways will have to make a severe reduction in the scale of its activities: lay off personnel, reduce investments, and perhaps even have to consider the conservation of certain sections of tracks that will not be in demand.
“We don’t know how far things can go. Therefore, for Lithuanian Railways, the effect of stopping transit may not be felt right here and now. Yes, there will be fewer cargoes, but the company has a margin of financial strength to hold out for a while. But on the horizon of 2-3 years, losses can be tens of millions of euros, if we are talking about profits, and hundreds of millions of euros if we are talking about revenue, taking into account not only Belaruskali, but in general all Belarusian transit, including imported cargo. This could be a very serious blow for Lithuanian Railways, after which it will probably be difficult for the company to recover or, at least, play in the same weight category,” Kondratyev said.
In general, the overwhelming majority of experts agree on one thing – the “transit war” will not bring victory to anyone, and ordinary people will become “victims” in the geopolitical confrontation of states.
The negative economic consequences of stopping transit are apparent both sides will suffer equally. It will equally affect both the economies, both private and public companies as well as both the business leaders and ordinary workers.
As a social scientist anybody can conclude that both will have to come on negotiating table to broom out the dust of distrust. Sooner they will do it, better would be for both. The popular former Prime Minster of India, Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee remarked, “You can change your friend but cannot change your neighbour, you can change your history but cannot change geography”