- Despite voluntary action by companies after the Ukraine invasion and partial sanctions on wood exports following it, Earthsight has found that Belarus-EU furniture exports are thriving.
- Trade continues after Earthsight’s report last year, which showed the close nexus between Lukashenko’s regime, the Belarusian furniture industry and its tyrannical prison system, and despite the continued complicity of the dictatorship in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
- EU member states - led by Poland, Germany, Lithuania and the Netherlands - are continuing to import millions of Euros of tainted wood furniture from Belarus each quarter.
- Furniture is now the single largest category of unsanctioned exports from Belarus to the EU.
- Following Ukrainian Parliament’s calls for sanctions on wood products like furniture and paper from Belarus and Russia in May this year, leading Ukrainian and Belarusian political voices lend fresh support to calls for expanded sanctions on Belarus.
Prisoners preparing logs for sawing at IK-22 in Belarus, 2017
The Belarusian furniture industry is synonymous with its oppressive regime. At a meeting with top officials to discuss the country’s timber industry, in October 2020 President Lukashenko described the woodworking industry as “the most important and strategic one for the national economy” and said the government pays “closest attention” to the sector, with top officials being coordinators of its most important projects.
It’s no wonder, given how much revenue the sector generates. In 2021, Belarusian government reports valued the state’s forest resources at 30.2bn Belarusian roubles (€9.46bn). State-owned woodworking conglomerate Bellesbumprom is the country’s largest furniture manufacturer. All of Belarus’s pulp and paper exports also come from state-owned companies. Twenty-six million cubic metres of timber were harvested in Belarusian forests last year. Belarus exported $3.8bn of furniture, pulp and paper in 2021, of which $2.1bn (55 per cent) was destined for the EU1.
On 2 March 2022, the EU banned imports of Belarusian timber, as part of its response to the country’s involvement in the Russian aggression against Ukraine. This action recognised the importance of the timber industry to the Belarusian regime. There was one problem - the Belarusian dictator’s cherished furniture industry, as well as pulp and paper exports, were excluded.
Civil society coalition B4Ukraine, of which Earthsight is a member, made a joint submission to the EU to expand sanctions on Russian oil and gas today. The submission also includes one demand on Belarus: for the EU to ban furniture, pulp and paper from the country [HS codes 94, 47 and 48].
The submission was timed to coincide with the EU’s deliberation over a fresh round of sanctions on Russia and Belarus.
Logging in the Bialowieza forest.
"It is unacceptable that some firms in the West are still continuing to engage in business with authoritarian regimes or assist them in circumventing sanctions while many Belarusian citizens are facing persecution and imprisonment."
- Franak Viačorka, Chief advisor to Belarus’ exiled opposition leader
Belarusian furniture linked to human rights abuses
In a report published by Earthsight in November 2022, ‘Rubber-stamping Repression,’ we revealed how the Belarusian furniture sector is closely connected to the country’s many penal colonies, where prisoners work under archaic conditions. We also showed its links to the abuse and torture of political prisoners in the country, as well as to logging in protected areas. We showed how many Belarusian prisons had been awarded spurious sustainability credentials by international certification scheme Forest Stewardship Council, which effectively licensed these furniture products for sale on the EU market for years before the invasion.
IKEA and certification schemes such as FSC and PEFC which had seen no problem associating with the country’s torture-stained furniture industry before the invasion, finally pulled out of Belarus following it and related calls from civil society for them to boycott Russian and Belarusian wood.
But all of IKEA’s largest European competitors continued to buy. After its links to prison labour were exposed in Earthsight’s report, Europe’s second largest furniture retailer, XXXLutz, has also cut all remaining ties to Belarus2. But other big retailers have yet to follow suit, and Belarusian furniture remains on sale across the EU, including in Germany.
In May this year, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a resolution urging foreign governments to ban all Belarusian and Russian wood products including furniture and paper from coming over their borders. Yet still the trade has continued.
New analysis by Earthsight shows that millions of euros of goods made from Belarusian logs - most importantly wood furniture, some of it made in Belarusian penal colonies - remain unsanctioned to this day, and continue to flood into the EU unabated each month. Our analysis also shows a suspicious rise in the country’s exports of pulp and paper.
With the war still raging and Belarus’ continued complicity in the atrocities inflicted on Ukraine, it is urgent that the EU acts to plug the gaps in its sanctions regime on the Belarusian wood products sector as soon as possible.
"Large quantities of Belarusian furniture, pulp and paper are still entering EU markets, providing Lukashenko's regime – Russia’s ally - with hundreds of millions of euros."
- Yuliia Ovchynnykova, Ukrainian MP
Eight reasons for the EU to expand sanctions on Belarus to cover furniture, pulp and paper
1. Additional sanctions against Belarus are justified and needed. The Belarusian government continues to actively support Russian aggression in Ukraine, and has recently provided a refuge for soldiers of the Wagner mercenary group, which is the subject of sanctions for its activities in Ukraine but also for torture and murder in Central Africa. It is also continuing the violent suppression of its own people.
2. Furniture is Belarus’s largest remaining category of unsanctioned exports to the EU. As seen previously, the forestry sector is an important source of revenue to Belarus, and continues to be so after the invasion. In the first half of 2023, the EU imported €97.2m of furniture3 (including €61.4m of wood furniture4) from Belarus. Most of this is going to Poland and Germany, followed by the Netherlands, Lithuania, Romania, Estonia, Latvia and France. Imports represent 13 per cent of total remaining EU imports from the country. It is the largest category of pre-war trade not yet subject to sanctions5.
3. Belarus’s exports of pulp and paper to the EU have grown dramatically, raising the strong possibility they may be of Russian origin. EU imports of pulp and paper from Belarus have grown significantly since Russian pulp and paper was banned. There is a high chance that some of these goods are laundered and of Russian origin. Pulp and paper now makes up a further 4.5% of total remaining Belarusian exports to the EU6.
4. These goods are connected to torture of political prisoners in Belarus. As our report showed, the Belarusian prison service is the country’s largest wood processor. It produces finished furniture for export, and supplies parts and labour to other furniture producers. Earthsight has previously linked EU furniture imports to prisons where torture of political prisoners has occurred7. Citing his involvement in serious human rights abuses such as torture and forced labour of prisoners, the EU has recently sanctioned the head of one of the prisons concerned8 – but the products his prison makes are still welcome in Europe.
5. These goods are also funding Lukashenko’s personal slush fund. All of Belarus’s forests are state-owned, so revenues from sales of timber from them flow directly to the state, including the timber which is being used to produce the furniture, pulp and paper still being exported to the EU9. 8% of the revenues from these state-owned forests flow directly into the President’s personal slush fund, the Presidential Property Management Directorate10.
6. Exempting furniture, pulp and paper is inconsistent. The EU already banned imports of raw wood from Belarus, and the Council has been unable to explain why the same logic should not be applied to products made from that wood11. The same inconsistency does not apply to Russia, whose furniture, pulp and paper are already banned.
7. Ukrainian and Belarusian civil society have long called for sanctions on Belarusian wood furniture, pulp and paper. A few days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more than 130 NGOs, led by Ukrainian and Belarusian groups and backed by civil society around the world, united12 to call for a ban on all types of wood products from the two countries. Their appeal specifically calls for a ban on furniture and furniture parts, pulp and paper from Belarus and Russia.
8. The Ukrainian Parliament recently called on the EU to establish such sanctions. The Parliament in Ukraine formally adopted a Resolution in May 2023 that called on the EU Council and foreign governments to ban wood and derivative products from Russia and Belarus. The Resolution13 specifies that furniture and paper should be included in fresh sanctions. It also points to the possibility of existing sanctions being circumvented via third countries.
Belarusian and Ukrainian political figures issue fresh calls for action
Following the Ukrainian Parliamentary resolution and previous calls by civil society, key Belarusian and Ukrainian politicians Franak Viačorka (Chief advisor to Belarus’ exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya) and Yuliia Ovchynnykova, a Ukrainian MP who played a leading role in calling for the Ukrainian Parliamentary resolution, voiced support for fresh EU sanctions on furniture, pulp and paper.
Speaking to Earthsight, Viačorka said, ‘’It is unacceptable that some firms in the West are still continuing to engage in business with authoritarian regimes or assist them in circumventing sanctions while many Belarusian citizens are facing persecution and imprisonment. Lucrative loopholes with regard to furniture and paper have been overlooked in EU sanctions on wood exports from Belarus. These must be closed.’’
Yuliia Ovchynnykova, who is also chair of the Ukrainian parliamentary sub-committee on forest resources, stated ‘’Sanctions are an effective tool to counteract aggressive countries because they decrease their ability to wage war and kill Ukrainians. However, large quantities of Belarusian furniture, pulp and paper are still entering EU markets, providing Lukashenko's regime – Russia’s ally - with hundreds of millions of euros.
‘’This is Belarus, from whose territory drones and missiles are being launched at peaceful Ukrainian cities, where the Russian army is being trained and where criminals from Wagner Group find shelter. The Ukrainian Parliament has called for these products to be banned just recently. So I urge the EU Council to urgently impose sanctions on all imports of Belarusian wood-based products.’’
- UN Comtrade
- All of XXXLUtz’s purchasing occurs through a separate company, GIGA International. GIGA informed Earthsight in August 2023 that all indirect purchasing of Belarusian furniture had ceased. XXXLutz also confirmed to Earthsight that the company had now ‘cut all ties to Belarus’ and does ‘not have a single piece of furniture from there.’
- Figure is for trade under HS Code chapter 94, which includes furniture; bedding, mattresses, mattress supports, cushions and similar stuffed furnishings; lamps and lighting fittings, not elsewhere specified or included; illuminated signs, illuminated nameplates and the like; and prefabricated buildings.
- Includes wood furniture and wood furniture parts traded under the relevant CN customs codes 94014100, 94016100, 94016900, 94019190, 94033011, 94033019, 94033091, 94033099, 94034000, 94034010, 94034090, 94035000, 94036010, 94036030, 94036090, 94039100.
- Pre-conflict (based on Jan-Jun 2021 baseline) the top Belarusian exports to the EU (by HS2 Chapter heading) were timber HS44 (23.5% of total exports to the EU, sanctioned), oil HS27 (20.7%, sanctioned), iron/steel HS72 (9.2%, sanctioned), fertilizer (7.2%, sanctioned) and furniture HS94 (5.9%, not yet sanctioned). Calculations based on raw EU Customs data sourced from Eurostat.
- Calculations based on Eurostat data for imports of Belarusian pulp and paper [HS codes 47 and 48] from Jan-June 2023.
- See Earthsight, November 2022, Rubberstamping Repression: How EU governments and a global green label made European furniture buyers complicit in torture. Available in German here.
- On 3rd August 2023, the EU sanctioned eight current and former officials at Belarusian penal colonies, including the current head of IK2 in Bobruisk, one of two prisons at the centre of Earthsight’s November 2022 Rubberstamping Repression report linking EU furniture imports to torture. (See natural person number 210).
- Earthsight, November 2022, Rubberstamping Repression: How EU governments and a global green label made European furniture buyers complicit in torture. Available in German here.
- A written question was submitted to the Council by an MEP in October 2022 asking why furniture had been excluded from sanctions; in February 2023 the Council responded, saying only that “as regards the possible introduction of sanctions banning the import of furniture from Belarus into the EU, the Council has not taken a position on this matter”. It is notable that a number of the largest exporters of Belarusian wood furniture are subsidiaries of EU companies.
- A statement by Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group and other NGOs, March 3rd 2022.
- Resolution of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, No. 3087-IX, May 2nd 2023.