Belarusian Timber Finds Its Way to EU Despite Sanctions

Published: 08 April 2024

Timber FlickrBelarusian timber allegedly finds its way to the EU, despite the sanctions. (Photo: Mark Horrell, Flickr, License)

By Belarusian Investigative Center

More than a year after investigative reporters revealed how Belarusian timber is making its way into the European Union despite sanctions, they revisited the story and found - it still does.

The EU banned imports of wood from Russia and Belarus in March 2022, shortly after Moscow invaded Ukraine. Until then, only Belarus exported timber worth around one billion euros annually.

But since the ban came into effect, the EU suddenly saw an influx of wood supposedly coming from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Imports from Kazakhstan, which barely exported any timber before, had increased 74 times, and those from Kyrgyzstan about 18,000 times.

But was that really all timber from Central Asia?

A joint investigation by the Belarusian Investigative Center (BIC), Siena, and a network of OCCRP partners showed in December 2022 that Belarusian and Russian wood companies evaded the sanctions by submitting paperwork that claimed their shipments came from these two Central Asian countries.

“Imports of wood from Kazakhstan to the EU for 2022 and 2023 show explosive growth to a record of almost 126 million euros (US$136.5 million),” emphasized the investigative report, highlighting Kazakhstan’s minimal involvement in such trade prior to the EU sanctions on Belarusian timber.

Following the revelations, the EU increased customs controls, discussed the issue with Bishkek and Astana, and partially closed the smuggling route.

But more than a year later, BIC looked into this issue again and found that imports of timber allegedly originating from Kyrgyzstan had dropped by almost 50 percent but that imports from Kazakhstan have actually increased although the country has barely any forests.

Reporters said they obtained more than 40 supply contracts worth millions of euros that appear to be sneaking Belarusian timber into the EU.

The suspicion that Poland serves as the entry point for Belarusian timber is bolstered by the stark increase in imports into Poland last year, rising almost fivefold from 14 million euros ($15.16 million) to nearly 68 million euros ($73.64 million) compared to 2022.

The report underscores a significant uptick in timber imports from Kazakhstan over the past two years, as highlighted by the Polish Economic Chamber for Wood Industry. The Chamber’s spokesman, Piotr Garstka, told the Polish outlet Gazeta Wyborcza that this could indicate that Russia and Belarus are circumventing the sanctions and gave the example of plywood.

Belarus ranked as the 34th biggest exporter of plywood in 2022. On the other hand, Kazakhstan had never produced plywood before, but in two years, it had become a major supplier.

"Our member companies have reported receiving offers for wood products at abnormally low prices. Or for species indicating Russian origin, such as Siberian larch,” Garstka said. “When we learned of successful tenders for the supply of converted timber to state-owned companies at abnormally low prices (even below the cost of raw materials!), we appealed to the Ministry of State Property to take appropriate corrective measures, but we have yet to receive a response."

Similar anomalies were recorded in Latvia and Lithuania. They imported wood worth millions of euross from Kazakhstan despite minimal imports in previous years. This is remarkable given that only five percent of Kazakhstan is covered with forest, and the country itself imports timber from Russia and Belarus.

The BIC report also alleged document forgery within the export process. For example, it found a transaction purportedly from the Kazakh supplier Nurr-Electro to a Polish company last year at the time when Nurr-Electro was reportedly being liquidated.

Moreover, additional evidence, including the absence of any records in Kazakh export databases and the involvement of carriers linked to Belarusian companies in the documents, further substantiates the idea that EU borders remain open for Belarusian timber despite the sanctions.

It appears that Kazakhstan isn’t alone in disguising exports of Belarusian timber. In 2023, the Polish company PLRBL reportedly signed contracts to supply the EU with timber suspected to be of Belarusian origin, camouflaged as goods originating from Kyrgyzstan. These deals were estimated to be worth around 15 million euros ($16.25 million).

Deliveries under these contracts reportedly spanned several countries in 2022 and 2023, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia, Hungary, France, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Estonia.