Belgium braces for Zelenskyy’s fury over Russian diamonds

Diamonds are not Belgium’s best friend. In fact, the precious stones are putting the country in line for a tongue-lashing from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy will address the Belgian parliament on Thursday, and has developed a formidable reputation for tackling uncomfortable truths head-on, whether that means accusing the Germans of favoring business interests over ethics or flatly questioning whose side Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is taking in the war.

When it comes to Belgium, parliamentarians are braced for the former comedian to zero in on the continued import of Russian rough diamonds to the Belgian city of Antwerp — a trade that enriches Alrosa, a partially state-owned enterprise. The diamonds may not be funding the war to the same extent as Europe’s continued purchase of oil and gas, but they are hardly something Zelenskyy can afford to ignore.

Russia is the world’s largest exporter of rough diamonds. Last year, it exported €1.8 billion worth of rough diamonds to Belgium’s second-biggest city, according to the Flemish government, which makes Antwerp the most significant destination of diamond exports from Russia.

In the previous sanctions package, the EU introduced an export ban on a wide range of European luxury goods, including diamonds, heading to Russia.

But politicians and campaigners are pushing the EU to go further.

The large majority of Russian diamonds are mined by Alrosa. Chief Executive Sergei Sergeevich Ivanov and his father, Sergei Borisovich Ivanov, a former chief of staff to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are already on the U.S. sanctions list, but not on the European one. In total, Alrosa said that it generated $4 billion from the sale of rough diamonds in 2021.

The U.S. has also limited the import of rough diamonds from Russia.

The nongovernmental organization Justice & Paix now wants the EU to follow suit. “For ethical reasons, we call for an import ban on Russian rough diamonds,” said Larisa Stanciu from Justice & Paix. “The trade in diamonds is, indirectly, important funding for this war. As a leader in democracy and human rights, the EU should set an example.”

The NGO’s demand is backed by the Belgian Greens, who are currently in government.

“Russia gets its money from selling oil and gas, but also from selling diamonds,” said Belgian MP Wouter De Vriendt, who leads the Green political group in the Belgian parliament. “We don’t want to indirectly finance the bombing of Ukrainian schools and hospitals.”

The Greens want Belgium to ask the European Commission to introduce such a ban and put Sergei Sergeevich Ivanov on the European sanctions list.

Game of stones

But this risks backfiring, the Antwerp diamond industry argues.

Such sanctions would simply redirect trade to other diamond centers in India and the United Arab Emirates, said Tom Neys, a spokesperson for the Antwerp World Diamond Center. He argues sanctions only make sense if they’re worldwide.

“We have invested 20 years in making the diamond trade more transparent,” said Neys. “Are we really going to throw that all away to reward Dubai, which is already opening its doors for Russian oligarchs?”

So far, the Green push to change Belgium’s position has not gained much traction behind closed doors, four Belgian diplomats and officials said.

Belgium has not and will not block sanctions on the diamond trade if the European Commission wants to include such a step in its sanctions packages, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said repeatedly.

But it’s a different thing to explicitly ask for it.

De Croo argues an import ban would not be in line with one of the key principles of the EU’s sanctions: That they should hurt Russia more than the EU.

“We’re not at war with ourselves,” De Croo said last week, when asked by reporters about the sanctions on diamonds. “I’m not against it but it should be done with good international agreements, or we may have no impact at all.”

When asked about diamonds, one EU diplomat with knowledge of the Belgian position said “the Commission knows the vulnerabilities from member states.”

Cooperation with Washington

To break the deadlock, activists are now weighing up international alternatives.

One possible solution is to coordinate the import ban with the United States, said Hans Merket, a researcher with human rights nonprofit IPIS.

The U.S. is an important consumer market for diamonds. Washington’s current sanctions on the import of Russian diamonds can easily be circumvented by importing them via India.

If transatlantic allies could agree to a stricter import ban on Russian rough diamonds, this would hurt Moscow more than if Washington or Brussels were flying solo.

It could also put moral pressure on other diamond centers like Mumbai, Dubai and Tel Aviv. Merket explained that reputational damage was important in the diamond industry. “If consumers would buy less because they’re aware buying Russian diamonds leads to financing the war, the ethical argument can quickly become an economic argument.”

These public concerns about the origins of diamonds — and particularly blood diamonds that stoke conflict in Africa — forced the industry to embark on the Kimberley Process to police supply chains.

A more unified approach to sanctions is also being proposed by Michael Freilich, a Belgian lawmaker from Antwerp. To create a level playing field when it comes to sanctions, it would be even better to press the other countries in the Kimberley Process to also sanction Russia, he said. The Kimberley Process is currently focused on violence related to rebel groups, not government intervention.

Until then, Zelenskyy will not get the answers he’s looking for on Thursday.

Freilich, who’s from the opposition New Flemish Alliance party, echoed the comments of his liberal opponent De Croo. “We have to make sure we’re not just hurting ourselves instead of hurting Russia.”

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