Russia turns its sights on Poland

By bne IntelliNews September 24, 2013

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Russia has issued stern warnings on Polish food imports. With Moscow in the midst of a fight to pull former Soviet states into its Customs Union, Poland - a leading supporter of Ukraine and Moldova's moves towards the EU - could be the latest to feel its wrath.

Russia's veterinary and phytosannitary oversight service Rosselkhoznadzor announced on September 23 that it will set stricter control measures for vegetables and cereals imported from Poland - as well as the Netherlands and Serbia - due to what it alleges are repeated violations of quality requirements, reports Prime. That statement came two weeks or so after the same body said it is considering a ban on Polish meat imports.

It also came two days after Gennady Onishchenko, head of Rospotrebnadzor - Russia's federal consumer rights watchdog - claimed that Moscow is alarmed by the flow of illegal goods from Poland.

"We have great suspicions that there is a high extent of deliveries from Poland, which, to put it mildly, do not meet the established requirements," Onishchenko said, according to Belarusian portal Charter 97. "This means that semi-legal, and frequently criminal, schemes are in use, in which some goods are brought into Poland where they assume signs of having allegedly been manufactured in Poland and then spread in the territory of Russia through Belarus."

The closer inspection of Polish food produce comes at a sensitive time for Warsaw. Poland has been pushing the sector as a major source of export revenue recently, but has fought what it says is protectionism against the high quality and low cost of its produce in CEE markets. It had a major spat with the Czech Republic through the summer.

Polish food producers have enjoyed success in Russia, and the country is now the fifth largest importer of food from the EU state. The dynamic growth of Polish food exports to Russia in recent years is summed up by earlier expectations that pork exports were expected to double in 2013. However, that was before the tension began to rise in recent weeks.

Individual shipments of Polish pork and cheese to Russia were halted in August, with increased controls placed on those particular products. Polish food safety officials said at the time that the state had not received any notification on the issue.

Point man

On the one hand, Russia has form - particularly in the meat industry - of blocking products that undercut its local producers. It is possible that the pressure on Poland is purely economic. On the other, Russia has initiated similar against several countries in recent weeks, with a clear political agenda.

Onishchenko is the Kremlin's point man in the trade wars it is increasingly starting against states it believes should join its Customs Union rather than drawing closer to the EU. He has recently announced import bans against Ukrainian chocolate and Moldovan wine - whilst (hardly coincidently) reopening the Russian market to Georgian wine and water. The reintroduction of those imports from the Caucasus followed a seven-year ban, and accompanied a new government in Tbilisi more friendly to Moscow.

Eastern states like Belarus, with which an ongoing fight over the potash industry in full swing, are an easy target for Russia. However, Russia has already shown it is ready to strike out at EU states.

Huge lines of Lithuanian trucks are currently stuck at Russian customs posts due to expanded administrative procedures that have, as yet, to be explained. Onichtchenko has also introduced additional controls concerning the safety and quality of Lithuanian dairy products. Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius - often criticized as being too soft on Russia - claimed on September 19 that the situation is getting close to an "economic war" against his country.

While Lithuania's push for a cheaper gas deal with Gazprom is also playing its part, Russia's action comes as Ukraine and Moldova are due to sign off on a free trade and association pact at a summit in the Lithuanian capital in November. As holder of the rotating EU presidency, the Baltic state has offered much encouragement to the pair to stay the course.

Poland is also attempting to play a major role as mediator. In particular, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has encouraged Kyiv with talk of how close it is to securing a deal, while also pushing Brussels to soften its stance. "Ukraine is on the final lap, and it must double its efforts and finish off the job," he said on September 21.

The warnings of from the Russian watchdog of Polish goods flooding over the Belarusian border also mirror the words out of Moscow directed at Ukraine. The same day the Polish official was speaking, an aide to President Vladimir Putin reiterated previous threats to permanently introduce tighter controls and possibly trade barriers at the Ukrainian border. Should Kyiv sign up for a free trade and association pact with Brussels, measures will be needed, said Sergey Glazyev, to prevent EU goods from flowing into Russia.

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