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Russia/Georgia: Russia Impounds Georgian Mineral Water

  • Robert Parsons

http://gdb.rferl.org/32BD2258-9A14-4247-A157-11B124A9EF7E_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/32BD2258-9A14-4247-A157-11B124A9EF7E_mw800_mh600.jpg (Courtesy Photo) Just three weeks after Russia stunned Georgia by banning the import of Georgian wines, Russia's Federal Consumer Protection Inspectorate has impounded more than 9,000 bottles of Georgian mineral water in Moscow Oblast. The seizure of the Nabeghlavi-brand mineral water followed the inspectorate's announcement last week that it had found a large quantity of counterfeit and low-quality Georgian Borjomi mineral water on the Russian market. Borjomi is one of Georgia's biggest exports and the most popular mineral water in Russia. Georgia says the ban on wine -- and by extension on mineral water if it happens -- is political and punishment for its pro-Western stance.

PRAGUE, April 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- This time, Georgia's state minister in charge of economic reforms, Kakha Bendukidze, was unable to contain his indignation. He characterized the threat to ban Borjomi mineral water and the impounding of 9,300 bottles of Nabeghlavi mineral water as "deliberate persecution of Georgian products."

Bendukidze is the former general director of Russia's United Heavy Machinery company and is regarded in Georgia as the most pro-Russian minister in the Georgian government.

He said there can no longer be any room for doubt: Russia is creating artificial barriers to the import of Georgian products, knowing that it is impossible to export mineral water to Russia without the necessary license.
Russia imposed a ban on Georgian wines on 27 March, having already banned the import of Georgian fruit and vegetables.


Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's chief sanitation officer, has already achieved notoriety in Georgia for demanding the ban on Georgian wines. He claims that the Russian authorities impounded 9,300 bottles of Nabeghlavi mineral water because they did not have the necessary documentation.

But that, says the general director of Tsqali Margebeli (Healthy Water), which produces Nabeghlavi mineral water, is nonsense. Irakli Ushveridze insists that Nabeghlavi has full international certification of its quality.

"We really hope that this matter doesn't get worse and that it doesn't acquire political baggage," Ushveridze said. "I can say one thing though: The quality of Nabeghlavi is completely guaranteed. We have an ISO certificate (International Organization for Standardization) issued in London and we have a Kosme Kronos factory, which is of Austro-German production and one of the best in the world. That is in itself a guarantee of quality."

Ushveridze says that the Russian side has made no attempt to get in touch with his company to explain its actions or seek documentation of any kind since the consignment of water was impounded.

The real fear in Georgia though is that this is just a prelude to a wider ban on Georgian mineral water and, in particular, Borjomi, which is one of the country's biggest exports and the most popular mineral water in Russia.

Last year, Georgia exported a total of $23.6 million of mineral water to Russia, most of it Borjomi.

Russia imposed a ban on Georgian wines on 27 March, having already banned the import of Georgian fruit and vegetables.

Most Georgians see this as proof that Russia's real aim is to bring the Georgian economy to its knees, although some, like former Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili, concede that the production of counterfeit goods is a problem.

"As is always the case, part of this has a basis in truth," Zurabishvili said. "We can't say that falsification of Georgian wines doesn't exist but you should also know that a very big part of those falsified wines on sale in Russia are made and falsified in Russia itself. So, they're not going to solve the problem by banning Georgian wines -- if solving the problem is what they want."
"First fruit and vegetables, then wine and mineral water and so on. We see Russia's political decision to show Georgia what it means to have bad relations with Russia." -- Georgian Foreign Minister Zurabishvili


Zurabishvili is convinced though that problem solving is not Russia's aim.

"This is a reflection of other political plans," Zurabishvili said. "First fruit and vegetables, then wine and mineral water and so on. We see Russia's political decision to show Georgia what it means to have bad relations with Russia."

Georgia appears to be paying the price for its ambitions to join NATO and the European Union and its opposition to Russian mediation in Georgia's frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For the moment, President Mikheil Saakashvili still appears to have the support -- albeit qualified -- of the Georgian people. The danger for him and his government is that Georgians may come to feel that the price of standing up to Russia is becoming too painful.
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