PRAGUE, 13 April, 2006 (RFERL) -- For Georgia, an opening at last in its two-week-old wine war with Russia. Moscow has been playing hard to get, by postponing a visit by the Georgian prime minister and studiously avoiding official Georgian attempts at contact.
Today though, Russia is ready to talk.
The size of the Georgian delegation that arrived in Moscow today is a measure of the issue's importance to Tbilisi. Agriculture Minister Mikheil Svimonishvili is accompanied by his deputy minister, the deputy minister of health, representatives of the Foreign Ministry, executives from the wine industry, and a group of parliamentarians.
If political pressure is the name of the game, it's clearly working. The embargo has hit Georgia where it hurts. The proverbial pips are squeaking.
And with unexpected consequences. President Mikheil Saakashvili used a state visit to China yesterday to announce that he was giving his controversial defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili, responsibility for seeking new markets for Georgian wine.
"The coordination of the wine business inside the country is the job of the prime minister, but I'm giving a separate group special responsibility for finding new markets and I've asked Irakli Okruashvili to head this group," Saakashvili said. "This is an additional responsibility for him and as soon as he returns from his NATO visit I want him to make several visits to Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and the Baltic countries."
One parliamentarian speculated in the Georgian parliament yesterday -- tongue only half in cheek -- that, on this basis, before very long the agriculture minister could expect to be given responsibility for artillery repair.
More seriously, the embargo may be opening cracks in the Georgian government. Saakashvili's announcement has sparked rumors that he has plans for Okruashvili to replace Zurab Noghaideli as prime minister. Noghaideli is putting on a good display of nonchalant unconcern.
"President Saakashvili has given Irakli Okruashvili, as a member of government, the task of finding new markets for Georgian wine," Noghaideli said. "I'm sure that Irakli will perform the president's task ably. We discussed this matter before the president's departure for China and I fully welcome it. May I repeat: I am sure that Irakli Okruashvili will fulfill this task with the same success he has performed his other duties."
No doubt, but the signs are that the pressure may be getting to the Georgian government.
In the meantime, it insists that the Russian wine embargo is politically motivated and is intended as punishment for Georgia's pro-Western leanings and its apparent reluctance to endorse Russia's application for membership of the World Trade Organization.
...Or Sour Wine?
The same Georgian wines that are now banned from Russia's shop shelves are sold throughout Europe and the United States without problem -- and many of the wines now forbidden from crossing the border into Russia are recent winners of awards from the very sanitation authorities that have now banned them.
But the weakness in the Georgian government's case is that it does not yet have full control over its own highly profitable wine industry. The production of falsified wine for the burgeoning Russian market has been big business for the last decade. Inspections are now tougher and more frequent and some producers of counterfeit wines have been closed down -- but not all, as Okruashvili admitted himself yesterday.
"The struggle against falsification is not finished and serious steps need to be taken," Okruashvili said. "I think several wineries that are still producing fake wine in Gori should be closed and that the production of some brands in Senaki should also be stopped."
It's an admission that may make it more difficult for the Georgian delegation in Moscow to persuade the Russian authorities to lift the ban, although the Georgians will argue, with justification, that it is unfair to punish all Georgian winemakers because of the crimes of a few.
Georgia remains a predominantly agrarian economy and, for centuries -- millennia even -- the making of wine has lain at its very heart. Right or wrong, fair or unfair -- it makes no difference -- this embargo is damaging both the reputation of Georgian wine and the pockets of its producers.
Saakashvili, who understands the importance and potential of Georgia's wine industry, has called the embargo the "biggest abomination" that Russia could have done to Georgia and is promising to seek new markets. But the reality is that Georgia is playing a weak hand. Like it or not, for the moment Georgia is dependent on a little Russian goodwill.