Estonia suspends all oil transit from Belarus

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Cargo train goods yard in Tallinn.
Cargo train goods yard in Tallinn. Source: Matthias Rikka/Operail

Estonia will introduce more sanctions against Belarus by suspending all transit of oil products from the country, the government said on Thursday. Last year transit flows reached record levels throwing doubt on Estonia's application of international sanctions.

"We have decided to impose additional sanctions on Belarus from the Estonian state, namely to suspend the transit of coal-based oil numbered under customs code 2707, via Estonia," Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) said at Thursday's weekly government press conference.

Earlier in the week, media reports revealed the transit of oil products classified under code 2707 had grown to a record level last year, totaling hundreds of millions of euros, helping to fund the Belarusian regime.

Goods under code 2707 are not directly sanctions, meaning their transit through Estonia had been legal up until now, Kallas said.

However, given the function of sanctions, Estonia's role in pushing for them, and the country's values-based foreign policy, it is now necessary to change this situation, Kallas said.

Kaja Kallas Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonia applied sanctions on Belarus after Lukashenko's reelection in 2020 in elections widely condemned as rigged. Additional sanctions were later applied after a violent crackdown by security forces on peaceful protesters, the forced landing of a RyanAir flight in Minsk.

In addition to EU-wide sanctions, individual states also have the right to impose unilateral sanctions, which the 2707-coded oil transit ban will now constitute.

The investigation suggested some codes may have been tampered with, although tests carried out by the Tax and Customs Board did not show sanctioned products. 

Lithuania's government was caught up in a similar situation last year but has now banned transit from Belarus.

Minister of Foreign Affairs: Estonia coordinating with Latvia, Lithuania

Speaking at the press conference, Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets (Center) emphasized Estonia had not broken internationally applied sanctions as the goods were not included.

Estonia is also coordinating its activities with Latvia and Lithuania and intends to propose the introduction of the same sanction at the European Union level, she said.

Eva-Maria Liimets. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

"It is important to emphasize there is no general embargo on Belarus, some trade with that country remains, transit is allowed for some goods. We want to change the regime in Belarus, not cut it off the world map," Liimets said.

The minister said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a coordinating role in the sanctions but implementation is up to other agencies, such as the Tax and Customs Board.

"To better coordinate this, I convened an inter-agency steering group last week. Hopefully, we can use it to provide a better analysis of the impact of sanctions," Liimets said.

Investigation: How record amounts of Belarusian oil flows through Estonia

An investigative carried out by Delfi Estonia, Re:Baltica and the Belarusian Investigative Center showed how workarounds on the sanctions, initiated by an oligarch nicknamed "Lukashenko's energy wallet", had emerged.

The scheme mostly exploited exemptions on products that are not classified as sanctioned. This involves two codes, 2707 - which are unsanctioned - and 2710 that are sanctioned.

Code 2707 exports from Belarus to Estonia grew from close to zero in November 2020, to around 150,000 tons a month in 2021, totaling half-a-billion euros in trade value.

The Port of Muuga. Source: Jaan Kronberg/HHLA TK Estonia

The oil trains have been crossing the border from Belarus into Latvia, then making their way north to Estonia, ultimately ending up at the port of Muuga, where the oil can then be loaded onto ships.

Estonia was the only EU country allowing any such through-flow of 2707-coded oil.

Following the revelations, the Riigikogu's Foreign Affairs Committee agreed on Monday to review the situation. MPs highlighted Estonia is open to a charge of hypocrisy, given its official stance on the Belarus regime.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to add quotes from Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Helen Wright

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