The surprise proscription on the import of Moldovan wines went into effect on September 11 for the second time in seven years after Russian consumer authorities cited "basic problems" and made Moldova sound like the "Wild West of Winemaking."
Russia's top public health official, Rospotrebnadzor chief Gennady Onishchenko, said on September 10 that Moldovan wine contains impurities and there is a lack of quality controls by the Moldovan authorities despite "our concerns, repeatedly expressed [both] publicly and within the working regime."
Moldovan reaction was swift. President Nicolae Timofti called the move "unfriendly." Economy Minister Valeriu Lazar suggested it should be clarified "where technical problems about the quality of Moldovan wine end and where political aspects begin." And Prime Minister Iurie Leanca suggested Russia's move was out of line with bilateral trade deals and World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.
Coming into effect the day of a summit to further Moldova's and other neighbors' ties with the European Union, it's the latest in a spate of Russian import bans on foodstuffs seemingly aimed at putting former and prospective client states in political and economic thumbscrews.
It's an impressive list of items -- Polish meats, Moldovan onions, Belarusian sour cream, Tajik dried fruit -- that RFE/RL Russian Service Managing Editor Irina Lagunina recently combined to create a tasty dinner:
While they're patently political, Russia's repeated swipes at Moldovan wines hit the country right where it hurts, not just economically but also viscerally.
Moldova is among Europe's poorest states, heavily reliant on agriculture. Russia accounted for nearly 21 percent of Moldovan exports in 2012, even more than Romania (19.8 percent), according to the CIA's World Factbook.
Winemaking dates back at least 3,000 years and is a tremendous point of pride for many Moldovans. Its 142 wineries play a conspicuous role in its tourism and international-trade efforts. The government's official website calls its wine culture the country's "best tourism product," boasting world-class quality and romantic environs.
But Moscow's move is also a blow to Russians' own consumption habits, since Moldovan labels reportedly make up 10 percent of wine sales in Russia. The only reason that figure's not higher is because of a similar, nearly two-year ban that Russian authorities put in place in 2006-07 -- when Moldovan feteascas, rara neagras, pinots, and other varietals reportedly controlled significantly more of the Russian wine market.
But Russian shoppers have been caught up in trade warfare before, and not only concerning Moldovan goods. Moscow jrecently put the squeeze on food imports from ostensible EU aspirant Ukraine, stepping up border controls in July before banning Ukrainian chocolate maker Roshen the next month. (Ukraine is feeling the pinch.) Another food ban, in 2012, targeted Ukrainian cheese over an alleged filler. Western-inclined Georgia has repeatedly come under Russian trade sanctions, including a 2006 ban on wine, mineral water, and agricultural goods over dubious contamination allegations. (That ban was only lifted this summer after lots of shuttle diplomacy related to Russia's ultimately successful bid to join the WTO, and Georgian winemaking is faring just fine, thank you.) In 2009, with Belarus's authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka flirting with the West and unshackling some political prisoners, Russian health authorities cut off milk imports from that country, citing a "direct threat to life and health."
Moldova is among a handful of countries (including Ukraine, Belarus, and Armenia) with which Brussels has sought deeper relations through its Eastern Partnership program.
Moscow, on the other hand, is keen on extending the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia and which the United States and other Western rivals have likened to an effort to reimpose economically driven, Soviet-style order. Armenia this month announced its intention to join that Russian-led union, throwing a wrench in what looked like the imminent signing of an Association Agreement between Yerevan and the European Union.
Kremlin-tinted glasses aside, Moldovan wines are well-regarded.
Leif Pettersen sings their praises in a recent AOL Travel piece called "Europe's Next Hot Wine Destination? Moldova":
With Moldova's stalwart vineyards like Purcari, Cricova and Milestii Mici finally shaking off the shell shock of the post-USSR collapse of their distribution system, and the recent legalization of small-volume wine production, the region's wine-making booster rockets are igniting.
Former British Labour MP and Minister for Europe (and accused expenses cheat) Denis MacShane, meanwhile, is among those abroad who took up the "tastevin" for Chisinau on Twitter:
EU officials have reacted angrily to the most recent Russian tactics to pressure its neighbors economically.
"We cannot accept any attempt to limit these countries' own sovereign choices," Reuters quoted European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso as saying in his annual state of the union speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on September 11. "We cannot turn our back on them."
It quoted an advance copy of a speech by EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele as saying, "Any threats from Russia linked to the possible signing of agreements with the European Union are unacceptable."
Or unpalatable, at least.
-- Andy Heil