July 28, 2021

Why Nestlé is criticized for its actions in Belarus

AIn early June, the Belarusian journalist and activist Roman Protassevich was featured in an interview on the country’s state television, which was obviously under great pressure. Almost two weeks earlier, dictator Alexandr Lukashenko had forced a scheduled Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk in order to arrest Protassevich and his partner. The state broadcaster ONT saw the young man with spots on his swollen face and wounds on his wrists. The appearance caused international horror. But Protassevich is only one of the regime’s many victims: Belarusian state television, one of Lukashenko’s pillars, repeatedly broadcasts alleged “confessions” by prisoners of the opposition in order to spread fear and to suppress further protests. Torture is common in detention centers.

Katharina Wagner

Business correspondent for Russia and the CIS based in Moscow.

The fact that western corporations continue to advertise on Belarusian propaganda channels is now directing outrage on companies such as the Swiss food company Nestlé: According to the Belarusian opposition, no other foreign company has such a strong presence on state television.

The opponents of the regime evaluated the commercials of all major state channels in a week in June and came to the conclusion that Nestlé switched by far the most clips, including for Nesquik, Nescafé, Maggi and Kitkat. In second place is the American company Mars, albeit a long way from Nestlé.

Every third Nestlé commercial

The behavior of Nestlé has long been a thorn in the side of the Belarusian opposition. But now there is also protest from the West: Libereco, a German-Swiss non-governmental organization that campaigns for the protection of human rights in Belarus and Ukraine, has written an open letter to Nestlé boss Ulf Mark Schneider and its chairman Paul Bulcke. In it, Libereco calls on the food company to “immediately end its support for the TV propaganda of the Lukashenko regime”. More than 50 non-governmental and human rights organizations from 18 countries have signed the letter. According to Libereco President Lars Bünger, Nestlé has not yet responded to the letter. The company from Vevey on Lake Geneva also refused to comment on this issue with the FAZ.

“We are shocked by the regular broadcast of forced confessions of guilt by opponents of the regime and political prisoners on Belarusian state television,” said Bünger. He finds it “unbearable that Nestlé is advertising coffee, chocolate bars and cat food in the context of this appalling display of frightened and abused regime critics”. The group is complicit in the crimes of the Lukashenko regime. A random observation of two state broadcasters showed that every third commercial was run by Nestlé, said Bünger in an interview with the FAZ.A quarter of the commercials were occupied by various companies from the EU and the United States, including Mars and Pepsi . Nestlé’s European competitors such as Danone or Unilever were not noticed as advertisers, not even big brands from Germany.

Nestlé's company logo at the Swiss headquarters near Lausanne

Nestlé’s company logo at the Swiss headquarters near Lausanne

Image: AFP

Bünger hopes that Nestlé will respond to the open letter. “We are not asking Nestlé to stop selling its products in Belarus. The company should just stop advertising in the state media. ”If the Swiss wanted to send a positive message, they could advertise on Belsat TV instead. This is the station that reports (critically) from Poland on the situation in Belarus.

Outrage over Siemens over the delivery of gas turbines

If there is no response within ten days, public protests will be called, for example in front of Nestlé’s Nespresso shops. In addition, contact will be made with members of the European parliaments in order to also exert pressure on a political level. So far, Bünger is not planning to call for a boycott of Nestlé products: “I don’t want to threaten that today.” But if Nestlé continues to be deaf, a boycott call is ultimately also possible.

The Belarusian opposition has long tried to focus on the activities of Western companies in Belarus, as they kept the Lukashenko system alive. Recently, for example, there was outrage about Siemens because of the delivery of gas turbines to Belarusian state-owned companies. Opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaya, who was exiled in Lithuania, also repeatedly calls on Western companies to end their cooperation with the regime. For example, the Austrian Raiffeisenbank should no longer make capital available to Belarusian state banks, since this money would flow into the police apparatus.

The opposition had also become aware of Nestlé months ago when it became clear that the Swiss company would not forego advertising on state television despite Western sanctions and ever tougher suppression of protests. The Telegram channel Nexta, which is central to the protest movement and whose editor-in-chief was Protassevich for a time, called for a boycott of the Swiss group, which was greeted with a flood of negative comments on social media. Nestlé did not react and does not want to comment on the allegations to this day. In the open letter to Nestlé, the NGOs reminded that media freedom was suppressed in Belarus. Therefore, the European Broadcasting Union suspended the membership of the Belarusian broadcaster BTRC at the end of May. “We expect Nestlé to do the same and distance itself from the Belarusian regime.”