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In Belarus Spat, Russian Public Health Chief Shows Political Clout -- Again

Belarusian milk has suddenly gone bad for Russia, its top health inspector says.
Belarusian milk has suddenly gone bad for Russia, its top health inspector says.
What do Georgian tangerines, Moldovan wine, and American tobacco have in common?

They have each come under fire from Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's combative public health chief.

Onishchenko's latest target is Belarusian dairy products, which he has deemed a "direct threat to the life and heath" of Russian consumers.

His agency, Rospotrebnadzor -- the Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare -- banned more than 1,000 types of Belarusian milk products this week, in what has already been dubbed the "milk war."

Like a number of other food embargoes overseen by Onishchenko, the milk row comes amid souring political ties between Moscow and Minsk -- leaving many to wonder whether the inspector may have more than public health on his mind.

"He couldn't hold this post if he didn't carry out political tasks from time to time," says Yevgeny Yasin, who served as economy minister under former President Boris Yeltsin.

"The only thing I can say in his defense is that almost all governments around the world use sanitary inspections for the same purposes. But I'm not justifying Onishchenko's actions; personally I'm opposed to these methods."

Political Health Concerns

Belarus has staunchly defended the quality of its dairy products. The row has raised fresh questions about Russia's commitment to free trade and concerns about what many say are attempts to use trade as a political lever on former Soviet satellite countries who have angered Moscow by courting stronger ties with the West.

In his 13 years as chief sanitation inspector, Onishchenko has relentlessly denied having a political agenda. He has refused to discuss his agency's decisions with foreign manufacturers and is notorious for his reluctance to speak to journalists. (Onishchenko's spokesperson declined to speak to RFE/RL for this article.)

The targets of his bans, however, speak volumes.

In March 2006, he halted imports of wine from Georgia and Moldova, whose leaders' efforts to steer their countries away from Moscow's orbit had riled the Kremlin. Onishchenko had previously banned fruit and vegetables from both countries as well.

Onishchenko said the wines contained dangerous pesticides. Meanwhile, wine imports from Abkhazia, Georgia's pro-Moscow separatist region, continued unhindered after he declared them fit for human consumption.

Two months later, he extended his ban to two popular Georgian mineral waters, again citing poor quality.

The public health chief then launched a fierce attack on tobacco manufacturers in the United States, a country also increasingly at odds with the Kremlin, accusing them of perpetrating a "nicotine genocide" against the Russian people on behalf of "U.S. state capital."

Although Onishchenko wasn't involved in his country's two-year ban on Polish meat -- meat doesn't fall under his jurisdiction -- he nonetheless took a strong stand in favor of the embargo in public.

Poland had denounced the ban as politically motivated and had retaliated by blocking an EU-Russian cooperation pact.

Belarus Out In The Cold

In the current "milk war," the Kremlin is no doubt under pressure from Russian manufacturers to stem the tide of Belarusian dairy products, which are significantly cheaper than their Russian counterparts.

But observers say the embargo is also political retaliation for the increasingly defiant tone of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a longtime ally of Moscow.

"This type of measure illustrates a new geo-economic weapon," says Leanid Zaika, who heads the Strategy think tank in Minsk.

"If deliveries of milk are halted, [Belarusian] agricultural firms will be left without funds, which would represent a huge blow for Lukashenka's regime. It's easy to use such a weapon. The goal here is less to squeeze Belarusian products from the market than to bring Belarusian leaders, including Lukashenka, to their senses."

Russia's milk ban came a day after Lukashenka claimed that Russia made the approval of a $500 million loan conditional on Belarus's recognition of Georgia's two separatist regions as independent states -- a claim firmly dismissed by Moscow.

Nicaragua is currently the only country that has followed Moscow's calls to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia following last summer's war between Russia and Georgia.

The European Union had warned Belarus against recognizing the two provinces and threatened to cancel Belarus's invitation to the Eastern Partnership, a cooperation forum that was inaugurated last month.

It is questionable whether the milk ban will succeed in reining in Lukashenka -- who has vowed his country will no longer "bow down" to Moscow.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, after all, doesn't tire of crediting Russia with forcing Georgia to successfully diversify its wine exports.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report