Belarusian and Russian officials are meeting in Moscow amid a growing feud over Moscow's banning of many food imports from Belarus.
Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Mikhal Rusy met on December 4 with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, a day after Minsk charged Moscow with "violating all agreements" within the customs union by banning food imports from Belarus and imposing restrictions on the transport of food through Russia to Kazakhstan.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on December 3 that the ban contradicted agreements between Minsk and Moscow that Belarus should not suffer losses because of the Kremlin's sanctions against the EU and the United States.
Those sanctions prohibit the direct import of EU food products into Russia but allow foods that undergo substantial reprocessing in Russia's two customs-union partners, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Russia's veterinary regulator, Rosselkhoznadzor, banned imports of meat and milk from 23 Belarusian processing plants at the end of November, claiming it found traces of harmful substances.
But Lukashenka accused Moscow of having ulterior motives. "The main problem is that various kinds of crooks in Russia want to make money on the Russian market by jacking up prices," he said in Minsk on December 3.
"Shipments of Belarusian goods significantly restrain the growth in prices in Russia, and we know into whose hands this plays," he added.
Produced In Belarus?
Since the Kremlin announced a one-year ban in August on most foods from the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada, and Norway, prices in Moscow supermarkets have jumped, particularly for fish, meat, and dairy products.
Russia traditionally has imported almost 40 percent of its food, so the cutback in imports has reduced supplies, forced up prices, and sent consumers scurrying to find domestic alternatives.
Minsk, which did not join in imposing Moscow's sanctions on the West, had looked set to benefit financially from Russia's prohibition on direct Western imports.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said shortly after the sanctions were announced that some Western-sourced items could still enter Russia if they did so as "products" of Belarus and Kazakhstan. He explained that if reprocessing "adds a large part of value to a product, then this is a new product."
However, it now appears that Moscow wants to shrink that loophole as Russian officials charge that large amounts of EU-made food products are being smuggled into the county from Belarus, either directly or as exports bound for Kazakhstan.
Lukashenka dismissed those accusations in his remarks on December 3, saying Belarus was not using any illegal schemes.
He said he had already promised Russian President Vladimir Putin that Minsk would not allow banned foodstuffs across the border.
But Lukashenka also said Belarusian companies will continue selling reprocessed foods to Russia and elsewhere.
"If we, for example, have [previously] brought in meat, milk, vegetables, fruit, and fish, and processed them on the territory of Belarus and then sold those products in the Eurasian region, including in the customs union, then we will continue working like that," he said.
"We cannot align ourselves with [Russia's] sanctions and make our situation worse," he said. "We have enough problems."
Looking For Back Doors
Lukashenka went on to dismiss allegations that the amount of food going into Russia from Belarus had risen since Moscow forbid direct imports from the West.
He said that Belarusian processing companies did not have the capacity to significantly increase their work with Western raw products and that only a limited range of products were supplied to Russia in larger amounts.
He added that their exports had risen by just 2 percent to 5 percent but did not say what those products were.
As the dispute between Moscow and Minsk sharpens, it remains unclear how it will end.
Rosselkhoznadzor said on December 3 that Russia may resume imports of meat products from two Belarusian companies but that controls will be "much tougher" to enforce quality and safety standards.
Spokeswoman Yulia Trofimova told reporters in Moscow that "we do not exclude the possibility of [accepting exports from] enterprises using their own, and not imported, raw materials, and having a high level of monitoring."
The Russian veterinary regulator has said its ban of Belarusian meat and dairy imports since the end of November was tied to finding traces of harmful substances, including the virus that causes African swine fever.
Belarus is not the only country to draw Rosselkhoznadzor's attention in recent weeks.
Last month, the agency banned meat imports from Montenegro amid charges it was acting as a back door for EU products to enter the Russian market.
Interfax quoted Rosselkhoznadzor head Sergei Dankvert as saying on November 18 that Montenegro had allowed shipments of EU meat to reach Russia bearing fake certificates of origin from the former Yugoslav republic.