Belarus extradites Uralkali CEO to Russia

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Belarus extradited the chief executive of potash producer Uralkali to Russia on Thursday, state media in both nations said, paving the way for the neighbors to settle a row over one of Belarus's main sources of foreign income.

Vladislav Baumgertner was detained in Minsk in August after Uralkali quit a cartel with its state-run partner in ex-Soviet Belarus, triggering a price fall that infuriated Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russia's closest ally.

Russia's prosecutor general said on Thursday morning that Belarus had agreed to extradite Baumgertner, who had been charged with abuse of power and embezzlement and held under house arrest in Minsk after an initial stint in jail.

By evening, Belarussian television said he was in Russian hands and state-run Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported that he arrived on a flight to Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport before midnight, escorted by federal prison service agents.

The CEO's return ended an awkward situation for President Vladimir Putin, whose critics said Baumgertner's prolonged presence in Minsk suggested the Russian leader lacked clout to remove a senior Russian executive from Lukashenko's clutches.

This week, Uralkali's main shareholder, Suleiman Kerimov, announced that he had agreed to sell his 21.75 percent stake - a step that had been seen as a necessary precursor to a possible resurrection of the cartel.

The collapse of the cartel, which had controlled 40 percent of the $20 billion global market for the soil nutrient, hit prices - and Belarus's export earnings. Lukashenko has called for its restoration, but experts say industry overcapacity may make this hard to achieve.

Lukashenko, whose country is heavily dependent in Russia for cheap energy and financial aid, had demanded a change of ownership at Uralkali and a Russian criminal investigation of Baumgertner as conditions for resolving the row with Moscow.

Russia and Belarus are patners in a "union state" created half a decade after the 1991 Soviet collapse, but ties are sometimes tense.

Lukashenko has relied heavily on cheap Russian energy and financial handouts to keep Belarus's Soviet-style economy running since he came to power in 1994, using the landlocked nation's position as a buffer between Russia and NATO and the European Union as a bargaining chip with Moscow.

The Russian prosecutor general's office said Baumgertner would be detained and investigated upon his extradition.

The Belarussian prosecutor's office declined to comment, as did Uralkali.

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