27 February 2024, Tuesday, 6:52
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Same Fridman Song, Different Verse

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Same Fridman Song, Different Verse
Iryna Khalip

Opening accounts in Belarusian banks has turned into mass Russian tourism.

An advertisement suddenly popped up on one of the Russian sites — a cheerful ad, with flowers and views of the Svislachriver: we invite you, dear travelers, to Belarus (well, of course it was “Byelorussia” that was written there), you don’t need any Europe; you will see the beautiful cities of Hrodna, Minsk, Brest, and while you enjoy your trip, a Belarusian bank will make you a plastic card — and say hello to SWIFT and Amazon! Welcome back to civilization, Russian citizen!

I knew that many cunning Russians went to Belarus after the start of the war and opened accounts in order to get a coveted card that works all over the world. But it never occurred to me that it had already become a whole tourism industry. And it has become such.

The Russians are no longer coming here feverishly, as they did last year. Now they seek the aid of travel agents, managers, lawyers. Travel agents come up with successful packages: tourists come to Belarus, open a bank account, and while the bank makes a card, they go for a week to a sanatorium, an agro estate, or simply travel around the country and walk around Mir and Niasvizh, Hrodna and Vitsebsk, Brest and Pinsk. On the way back, they pick up the bank card and, “tired but satisfied,” go home. Banks, in a hurry, offer to open Belkart-Mir together with Visa or Mastercard for a small surcharge, and then you get a full cycle: Russian money is easily transferred from the local Mir to the Belarusian Belkart-Mir, and from there within a Belarusian bank the money goes to Visa or Mastercard, in dollars or euros — and sanctions are not so terrible anymore. Even if they are not allowed to enter Europe, there are the Emirates, Maldives, Bali, Thailand and a bunch of other wonderful places in the world where it is so convenient to spend money.

For those who do not want to waste time, they have already come up with a new scheme: the Russians write powers of attorney in the name of a certain manager who, having collected a couple of dozen of these papers from his compatriots, goes to Minsk and opens accounts for all of them. Then the manager receives bank cards, returns home, and in exchange for a fee, grateful customers take their coveted pieces of plastic, with which they return to their comfortable pre-war life and laugh in their mustaches at naive Europeans and stupid Americans. And they are right, by the way.

Of course, you can say that Lukashenka got lucky again. In 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia — Belarus increased the number of flights to Tbilisi, and Russians began to travel to Belarus for Georgian wines, stuffing the trunks of their jeeps with them. Russia went to Crimea and Donbass in 2014 — Minsk-Kyiv flights were arranged four times a day, with convenient connections for those arriving from Moscow. (By the way, if the Ryanair plane had not been foolishly landed, now, you see, the whole of Europe would be grazing in an embrace with Russia at the Minsk airport, helping the authorities to create a new European hub.) If it didn’t work out, it doesn’t matter. But now Russian capital flows in an endless stream to Belarusian banks. Wherever you turn, whatever you step on — sheer luck. Lukashenka, of course, got lucky, but only partly. The main thing is the complete indifference of the West to its own sanctions.

Priorbank is an Austrian business. BSB Bank is Swiss, Zepter Bank is also Swiss. BNB Bank is owned by the Bank of Georgia, which immediately after the start of the war applied to join the European Union. And they all willingly accept Russian money, be it a ruble or a billion, and open accounts simply with an internal Russian passport. Sanctions you say? Oh well. As long as the West closes its eyes, plugs its ears and pretends not to see or hear anything, there will be nothing but a war in Ukraine and repressions in Belarus.

And the Russians are also very eager to run in Belarus to their usual Alfa-Bank with the same red letter on the logo as in Russia. Even the sign was not changed: why? Formally, the bank, as the leaders themselves stated, is “a separate business as part of an international consortium”. Only this consortium is Alfa Group, owned by Mikhail Fridman, German Khan and Alexei Kuzmichev. With a variety of “daughters” and “mothers” registered in Cyprus, and in Luxembourg, and in Russia. But it doesn't change the essence. This is a Russian bank, which even safely got out of sanctions and continues to sparkle with scarlet letters on the streets of Belarusian cities, happy to distribute plastic to dear Russians. And everyone is happy.

Except Ukraine.

Iryna Khalip, exclusively for Charter97.org

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