October 8, 2013 5:23 pm

Moscow strikes back at former Soviet bloc nations by barring imports

A woman looks at dairy products in a supermarket in central Moscow on August 5, 2013. AFP PHOTO/KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV©AFP

As a group of nations from the former Soviet bloc prepare to sign agreements deepening their co-operation with the EU, Russia is hitting back with new bans on everything from Lithuanian cheese and Ukrainian chocolates to Moldovan wine.

Russia’s consumer protection agency announced on Tuesday that it would begin more stringent testing of Georgian wine imports, the day after Moscow implemented a ban on Lithuanian dairy products.

The measures follow enhanced searches of Lithuanian vehicles and cargo trucks on the Russian border in August, as well as bans on Moldovan wines and spirits and imports of one of Ukraine’s main confectionery brands, all announced within the past few months.

Moscow insists the new measures and testing are unrelated to a November EU summit in Vilnius at which the bloc is hoping to formalise closer relations with a group of nations – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – that Russia has sought to keep in its orbit.

Gennady Onishchenko, the head of the consumer protection agency, described the EU and Lithuania’s criticism of the dairy ban as “hysterical” and “pathetic”, while accusing Lithuania of exporting dairy products to Russia that were of lower quality than those it sold to EU countries.

“We are not paying Lithuania fake money,” Mr Onishchenko told journalists. “Why with this real money are we receiving fake products?”

The Lithuanian foreign ministry said the government had information that Russia might also be considering measures against its meat and fish exports.

Lithuania, current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, has been a chief proponent of the so-called Eastern Partnership. Its relations with Russia have also been strained in recent years over moves to eject a Gazprom subsidiary from the country on the basis of EU energy liberalisation rules.

In Brussels, EU officials have been closely monitoring the growing list of provocations. Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, raised the issue during a meeting with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, during a meeting at the UN General Assembly last month.

An EU official called the latest ban from Russia “big-boy bullying” but noted the bloc’s options were limited, both because of Russia’s influence and the fact that its market is highly lucrative.

Russia has a long tradition of imposing seemingly arbitrary food and safety restrictions against European products, be it Polish meat or Dutch potatoes, that western officials have long suspected are commercially or politically motivated.

[Russia has] joined the WTO yet, in terms of spirit, nothing has changed

- EU official

In 2006 Russia banned Georgian wine and mineral water as relations soured before a 2008 military conflict. While Moscow finally lifted the ban this year, Mr Onishchenko signalled on Tuesday that the consumer protection agency could reconsider the decision, citing defects in certain Georgian wines.

“All this has led us to once again question the Georgian side’s commitment to promoting long-term stable and civilised relations, the further development of which largely depends on the sustained quality of the wine delivered to the Russian market,” he said.

Western officials had hoped Russia’s accession to the WTO last year, after nearly two decades of negotiations, would improve the situation. Yet so far Moscow has failed to implement many of the commitments it made when joining the organisation. “They have joined the WTO yet, in terms of spirit, nothing has changed,” the EU official said.

The EU is expected to raise the food restrictions at the WTO next week. A decision is also imminent on whether the bloc will escalate a WTO complaint against Russia over a vehicle recycling law that Brussels believes unfairly penalises imported cars.

With few other options at their disposal, EU diplomats have been trying to turn Russia’s behaviour to their advantage as they court the eastern nations. Days after Russia banned Moldovan wine, for example, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, made it easier to import.

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