- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian health and sanitary officials on May 1 will ban wines from Georgia and Moldova, in a move that threatens to shut down Russia’s billion-dollar market for the two former Soviet republics’ wines and cognacs.

“Of course you need sanitary rules. Everyone has them: France, Italy. But to ban all wines from one country like this? It’s absurd. It’s a fraud,” said Maria Markoziya, manager of Genatsvale, one of Moscow’s many Georgian restaurants.

It is the latest Russian shot across the bow for the two nations, whose West-leaning policies increasingly irk Moscow.

In the Russian capital, many Georgian restaurants are allowed to import wines until May 1; wine and liquor stores, however, are clearing out their stocks or just letting them sell out.

“No one’s complained yet, but that’s just because we still have some on the shelves,” said Roman Budkeyevich, a clerk at the Aromatny Mir liquor store, where sweet wines from Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula now sit on shelves reserved for Georgian reds. “Not for long, though.”

Both Moldova and Georgia were major wine producers during the Soviet period and both have struggled to rebuild their wine industries. Both nations are also poor and have bitterly protested the restrictions.

“We are up against an effective economic embargo declared against Georgia,” an angry Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said this week.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said the ban was “gravely affecting the reputation of Moldovan wine, which has been built up over decades.”

Russia’s chief epidemiologist, Gennady Onishchenko, announced the prohibitions last week, and authorities later said the wines contained pesticides and heavy metals. He later extended the ban to brandy and sparkling wines.

“Checks … continue to be conducted on a large amount of alcoholic beverages produced in Moldova and Georgia,” he wrote in a letter Tuesday to customs officials. “The indicated products do not conform with the requirements of state sanitary and epidemiological rules.”

The Russian National Union of Wine and Spirits Producers and Distributors said its analyses showed no dangerous substances in imports from either country and threatened a lawsuit against regulators.

“We don’t want to be hostages to political intrigues,” said Vadim Drobiz, a spokesman for the Russian industry group.

Also muddying the wine waters are fake or substandard products, as Georgian and Moldovan wines or beverages bearing other labels with gag-inducing qualities regularly appear for sale in Moscow — Russia’s largest and wealthiest consumer market. Georgian officials say they have cracked down on false or poor quality wines, and the Russian wine union says most of the counterfeit production comes from Russia itself.

From Georgia and Moldova’s perspective, the Russian decision smacks simply of retaliation for their efforts to move out from under Moscow’s shadow.

Mr. Saakashvili’s government has clashed repeatedly with Moscow over energy supplies and the status of two Russian-supported breakaway regions and rattled the Kremlin with its ambition to join NATO and the European Union. Mr. Voronin broke with Russia in 2003 over Moscow’s staunch support for the separatist Russian-speaking region of Trans-Dniester.

That both nations’ economies are deeply entwined with Russia’s, however, means both are at Moscow’s mercy. Beyond wine exports, Moldova and Georgia rely heavily on imports of cheap Russian natural gas. Moscow plans sharp increases in gas prices for both.

The Soviet breakup hit both countries’ tiny wine industries hard, and both now rely heavily on exports to Russia. Georgia last year sent 89 percent of the overall 59.3 million bottles it produced to Russia, worth about $62 million, government data show. Moldova, meanwhile, sold 80 percent of its wine exports to Russia, about 288 million bottles, estimated at $250 million, the country’s wine export association said. The wines are significantly cheaper than imports from France, Spain, Italy and countries farther afield.

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