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As Georgia's Relations With Russia Sour, Moscow Says Its Wine Has Too

Russia imported an estimated 50 million bottles of Georgian wine in 2018.

Critics say it's a tactic commonly applied by Russia to discipline its backyard. Russia insists politics has nothing to do with it.

But as protests over Russian influence continue to rock Georgia, Moscow is hinting at a form of punishment its former Soviet dependencies know all too well: a ban on their most popular staples.

Russia's consumer protection agency announced on June 24 that Georgian wine exports to Russia, which by some estimates reached 50 million bottles in 2018, have markedly deteriorated. Promising to step up quality control, it revealed that batches from eight Georgian wine producers had already been stopped at customs.

Over 200,000 liters of wine imported in 2018 fell below "necessary standards," the agency said, noting also a threefold increase in the ratio of subpar wines since 2014. It gave no indication that growing political tensions had played a role in the decision to increase scrutiny.

Neither did Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who was asked to chime in on the issue the same day.

"There's no political conflict here," he said of the extra checks on Georgian wine, which coincide with ongoing nightly protests in Tbilisi fueled by outrage over Russian influence. “These are preventive measures to ensure the safety of our citizens."

Georgia is famous for its high-quality wine.
Georgia is famous for its high-quality wine.

But elsewhere, Russia dispelled doubts about the political undertone. In his flagship evening news show on June 23, state TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov denounced the protests that stemmed from a visiting Russian lawmaker occupying the speaker's seat in the Georgian parliament, and questioned the value of importing Georgian wine and Borjomi, its popular mineral water.

“If Georgia gives such an unfriendly welcome to Russian lawmakers taking part in an international organization, then it’s worth asking: Why do we in Russia need Borjomi? And why do we need Georgian wine?" Kiselyov said.

The consumer protection agency’s announcement came the following morning.

Violent Clashes

The Georgian capital has seen five straight nights of demonstrations sparked by images of Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Gavrilov chairing a session of an international assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries on June 20.

Violent clashes erupted on the streets of Tbilisi amid anger over perceptions that Moscow is expanding its influence in the former Soviet state. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 21 signed a decree banning Russian airlines from flying to Georgia that goes into force July 8. The protests have since expanded to include demands that protesters arrested during the initial rally be released, Georgia's interior minister dismissed, and law-enforcement officers who used force be punished.

While the flight ban represents a serious escalation in tensions between the two countries, who fought a five-day war in 2008 over Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, extra Russian controls over Georgian wine imports have elicited little surprise.

In 2006, as the Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili sought to strengthen ties with NATO and the European Union, Russia imposed a ban on wine and Borjomi imports from Georgia that lasted until 2013. As the biggest destination for Georgian wine, Russia faced accusations that it was applying politically motivated sanctions against a country looking to move away from its orbit.

Georgia’s not alone in accusing Russia of using spurious quality concerns to restrict trade. Moldova, another former Soviet state and one of Europe’s poorest countries, in 2006 received a similar ban on wine sales to Russia, a country that accounted for 60 percent of its wine exports at the time. A fresh ban was introduced in September 2013, days before Moldova was due to sign a series of agreements on political reform and free trade with the European Union.

In the past, Russia has also closed its borders to Lithuanian dairy products, Tajik nuts, and Ukrainian chocolates.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.