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Diamonds are not Belgium’s best friend. In fact, the gems are preparing the country for a tongue-lashing from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Zelenskyy is set to address Belgium’s parliament on Thursday and has earned an excellent reputation for tackling inconvenient truths head-on, whether it’s accusing the Germans of putting business interests above ethics or outright questioning whose side the Hungarian prime minister is on Viktor Orbán is at war.
When it comes to Belgium, parliamentarians are prepared for the former comedian to focus on the continued importation of Russian rough diamonds into the Belgian city of Antwerp – a business that enriches Alrosa, a partially state-owned company. The diamonds may not fund the war to the extent that Europe’s continued purchases of oil and gas do, but Zelenskyy can hardly afford to ignore them.
Russia is the world’s largest exporter of rough diamonds. Rough diamonds worth €1.8 billion were sold last year, according to the Flemish government most important goal 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, to Russia.
But politicians and activists are urging the EU to go further.
The vast majority of Russian diamonds are mined by Alrosa. CEO Sergei Sergeyevich Ivanov and his father, Sergei Borisovich Ivanov, former chief of staff to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are already on the US sanctions list, but not on the European one. Overall, Alrosa said it generated $4 billion from the sale of rough diamonds in 2021.
The US has also restricted imports of rough diamonds from Russia.
The non-governmental organization Justice & Paix now wants the EU to follow suit. “For ethical reasons, we are calling for an import ban on Russian rough diamonds,” said Justice & Paix’s Larisa Stanciu. “The diamond trade is indirectly an important funding for this war. As a pioneer in terms of democracy and human rights, the EU should lead by example.”
The NGO’s request is backed by the Belgian Greens, who are currently in government.
“Russia makes its money selling oil and gas, but also selling diamonds,” said Belgian MP Wouter De Vriendt, who leads the Greens group in the Belgian parliament. “We do not 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 Sergeyevich Ivanov on the European sanctions list.
game of stones
But that could backfire, argues the Antwerp diamond industry.
Such sanctions would simply redirect trade to other diamond centers in India and the United Arab Emirates, said Tom Neys, a spokesman for the Antwerp World Diamond Center. He argues that sanctions only make sense if they are global.
“We’ve invested 20 years in making the diamond trade more transparent,” Neys said. “Are we really going to throw this all away to reward Dubai, which is already opening its doors to Russian oligarchs?”
So far, the Greens’ push to change Belgium’s position hasn’t gained much traction behind closed doors, four Belgian diplomats and officials said.
Belgium does 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 has repeatedly said.
But it’s another thing to explicitly ask for it.
De Croo argues that an import ban would be at odds with one of the key principles of the EU sanctions: that they should harm Russia more than the EU.
“We’re not at war with ourselves,” De Croo said last week when asked by reporters about diamond sanctions. “I’m not against it, but it should be done with good international agreements, or we may not have any impact at all.”
When asked about diamonds, an EU diplomat with knowledge of Belgium’s position said: “The Commission is aware of the vulnerabilities of the member states.”
cooperation with Washington
To break the deadlock, activists are now considering international alternatives.
One possible solution is to coordinate the import ban with the United States, said Hans Merket, a researcher at the nonprofit human rights organization IPIS.
The US is an important consumer market for diamonds. Washington’s current sanctions on importing Russian diamonds can easily be circumvented by importing them through India.
If transatlantic allies could agree to a stricter import ban on Russian rough diamonds, it would hurt Moscow more than Washington or Brussels flying alone.
It could also put moral pressure on other diamond centers like Mumbai, Dubai and Tel Aviv. Merket explained that reputational damage is important in the diamond industry. “If consumers would buy less because they know that buying Russian diamonds will fund the war, the ethical argument can quickly become an economic argument.”
This public concern about the origins of diamonds – and particularly blood diamonds, which are fueling conflict in Africa – forced the industry to launch the Kimberley Process to monitor supply chains.
A more uniform approach to sanctions is also proposed by Michael Freilich, a Belgian lawmaker from Antwerp. To level the playing field on sanctions, it would be even better to urge other countries in the Kimberley Process to sanction Russia as well, he said. The Kimberley Process currently focuses on violence related to rebel groups, not government intervention.
Until then, Zelenskyj will not get the answers he is looking for on Thursday.
Freilich, who is from the opposition party New Flemish Alliance, echoed the comments of his liberal opponent De Croo. “We have to make sure that instead of harming Russia, we don’t just harm ourselves.”
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