Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 60

As of March 27, Russian authorities have banned the import of all wines from Moldova and Georgia, traditionally the leading suppliers to Russia’s market. In addition, as of March 21 Russia’s authorities banned the entry of plants and vegetable products from Georgia. It seems that the measure does not apply to products from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian government had already banned the import of Moldovan meat, meat products, and plants since April 2005.

These bans are politically motivated moves aiming to damage the economies of two pro-Western countries that Moscow regards as disobedient. The bans coincide with Moscow’s open sponsorship of contraband and illicit trafficking across the internationally recognized borders of Georgia and Moldova — in the latter case directly confronting the European Union.

Moreover, these bans amount to unilateral sanctions or embargoes by Russia, a candidate to the World Trade Organization, against WTO member countries Georgia and Moldova. WTO rules prohibit such measures against the organization’s member countries. Any member country is entitled to block the accession of a candidate country whose conduct does not adhere to WTO rules. According to Russia’s negotiator with the WTO, Maxim Medvedkov, Georgia and Moldova seem intent on holding up the signing of the protocols on completion of bilateral negotiations with Russia until their concerns are resolved; Medvedkov professes to “not being able to explain” those concerns (Kommersant, March 27).

Russia’s measures may reflect either recklessness about Russia’s WTO candidacy or perhaps a calculation that the EU and the United States have already made political decisions to admit Russia into the WTO simultaneously with Ukraine and would therefore close their eyes to Moscow’s violations of the organization’s rules. Such indulgence has been the case in other organizations as well, with emboldening effects on Moscow’s conduct.

Technically and bureaucratically, the ban on wines has taken the form of a decision by Russia’s Federal Inspectorate for Consumer Protection (RosPotrebNadzor) de-certifying all wines from Moldova and Georgia. Russia’s Railway Service had already stopped imports of those wines for a ten-day period on March 14, then RosPotrebNadzor de-certified them in Moscow and the Moscow region on March 21, before doing so throughout Russia on March 27. RosPotrebNadzor’s chief, Gennady Onishchenko, has instructed all of the Inspectorate’s territorial directorates to stop those imports and notified Russia’s Federal Customs Service of this decision. According to Onishchenko, more than 60% of those wines contain pesticides and heavy metals and are “highly dangerous to health and life.”

Such claims seem contrived for political reasons and are downright preposterous in their content. Moldovan and Georgian wines are highly popular in Russia, have won medals at numerous Russian and international contests, and successfully passed numerous checks by RosPotrebNadzor and other Russian authorities throughout the years — including 2005. Moldova and Georgia accounted for an aggregate share of 61% of Russia’s total wine imports in 2005. That share has been declining slightly but steadily in recent years in percentage terms, but it tended to grow in volume and value terms as Russia’s overall wine imports increased and the sources of supply diversified.

Russian consumers appreciate Moldovan and Georgian wines for rivaling in quality with some of the more expensive wines imported from Western Europe or the southern hemisphere. While Russia suffers from high rates of alcohol poisoning, it is not because of Moldovan or Georgian wines; nor do those wines cause any problems in the home countries. Russia does have a problem with surrogate wines that are sold on its market under false labels, but Moscow’s punitive measures are targeting the legitimate products of Moldova and Georgia. RosPotrebNadzor’s “diagnosis” also seems designed deliberately to damage the international reputation of these countries’ wines as Chisinau and Tbilisi seek to reorient their exports toward international markets. According to Igor Serdyuk, Moscow-based editor of the wine magazine Magnum, “Georgia and Moldova are targets of politically motivated attacks” (Moscow Times, March 22).

Meanwhile, Russia’s Phyto-Sanitary Inspectorate (RosSelkhozNadzor), headed by Sergei Dankvert, is raising similar barriers to plants and vegetable products from Georgia, as it did last year to Moldovan meat, meat products, and plants. In the meantime, Moldova has redirected those exports to several Central and East European countries, to no complaints from the countries of destination. Russia’s measures will undoubtedly spur Chisinau and Tbilisi to accelerate their reorientation away from the Russian market that poses political risks to them. Both countries should be able to count on the integrity of the WTO system and on enlarged access to now-protected EU markets.

(Interfax, March 21, 27; Novyie Izvestiya, March 27)