13th May 2021

Wine dispute on EU borders shows Russia in poor light

  • The Milestii Mici winery in Moldova, which depends for up to 15 percent of its state budget on wine sales (Photo: vonlohmann)

A Russian ban on Moldovan wine sales shows the EU's new "partner for modernisation" in a distinctly less-than-modern light. But the EU is unlikely to step in to the dispute.

"The European Union and Russia, as long-standing strategic partners in a changing multipolar world, are committed to working together to address common challenges with a balanced and result-oriented approach, based on democracy and the rule of law, both at the national and international level," Brussels and Moscow said in a joint communique in June on their new "Partnership for Modernisation."

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"Moldovan wine should be used to paint fences ... It should not be consumed not just in Russia but also nowhere else as the product is not interesting," Russian food safety chief Gennady Onishchenko said on national radio on 6 July.

The quotes show the contrast between EU-Russia diplomatic speak on President Dmitry Medvedev's reform ambitions and Russia's less progressive tone when dealing with its old, Soviet-era vassals.

Russia in the past two weeks impounded 170,000 bottles of Molodvan wine at a customs point in Moscow, with Mr Onishchenko's remarks seeing Moldovan exporters turn back other trucks heading over the border.

Russia says the move is based purely on health grounds, citing Russian tests which showed "dangerous" levels of dibutyl phthalate and metalaxyl in Moldovan wine. It's mission to the EU could not be contacted for a comment.

Moldova's new government and the EU believe the restrictions are politically motivated.

The theory goes that the wine ban is revenge for a Moldovan declaration calling on Russian soldiers to get out of Moldova. Also, that it is designed to harm the pro-EU camp of Prime Minister Vlad Filat as it heads into November elections against the pro-Russian Communist party.

"It's an attempt to play domestic politics, showing what can happen if we go against Russia," a Moldovan official said. "Of course. There's no question about it," a contact in the EU institutions said when asked if the Russian ban has ulterior motives.

Moldova currently exports 15 percent of its wine to the EU, which has not voiced any health concerns despite having some of the toughest phytosanitary standards in the world.

Meanwhile, Mr Onishchenko spelled out that when Russia last banned Moldovan wine back in 2006, the then Communist government was able to restore trade, but that Mr Filat's side is "incompetent" in handling the current problem.

EU sources noted the wine dispute is the latest in a series of Russian attempts to strongarm post-Iron Curtain neighbours, listing: the Belarus gas and milk wars, the Ukraine gas wars, the Georgia trade blockades, the Lithuania oil row and the Polish meat war.

The US spy scandal, which saw a cloak-and-dagger prisoner exchange at Vienna airport on Friday, also portrays Russia as being stuck in its Cold War past. "I don't know why the Americans decided to expose this now. But it makes the Russians look ridiculous," an EU official said, referring to the alleged Russian spies' outdated methods.

The EU could in theory increase its quota for Moldovan wine imports to give the country, the poorest in Europe and ravaged by summer floods, some relief. It could also issue a statement saying Russia, as a WTO aspirant, should abide by international trade norms.

A lack of joint-up thinking in the EU institutions indicates relief is unlikely to come, however.

The commission's neighbourhood and home affairs departments recently gave Mr Filat a boost by racing ahead with talks on a new Association Agreement and visa-free travel. But the EU executive's trade and health departments are barely aware of the wine dispute, with DG Trade dismissing it as a "bilateral matter" in a knee-jerk reaction.

In terms of Russian troops, Germany and Russia recently proposed to give fresh impetus to ending the frozen conflict in Moldova's Transnistria region.

But EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on Thursday said the EU Special Representative to Moldova should keep working for just another six months, in a move seen in EU diplomatic circles as downgrading the Moldova portfolio.

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