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Kremlin's Diplomatic Sour Grapes Leave Bad Taste For Montenegrin Winemaker

Around a fifth of the wine exported from Montenegro's Plantaze vineyard usually ends up in Russia. (file photo)

CEMOVSKO POLJE, Montenegro -- From the tranquil vineyards of the Plantaze winery near Montenegro's Adriatic coastline, it's hard to imagine one is in the crosshairs of a geopolitical struggle between the world's superpowers. Yet among the more than 11 million vines spilling from the terroir, the battle lines have clearly been drawn.

In April, Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian consumer rights and protection agency, said it was banning imports of Plantaze wine because of elevated levels of metalaxyl, a pesticide, and particle plastic diphtalata in some vintages.

The ban took effect on April 26, just two days before Montenegro's parliament ratified the Balkan nation's membership of the NATO security alliance.

"This unreasonable step is doing our company undoubted, immeasurable and irreconcilable harm," says Plantaze director Boris Milutinovic.

Montenegro is set to become the 29th member of the NATO military alliance on June 5, marking the end of a long and often arduous road to accession.

Along the way, Moscow has said repeatedly in various contexts that Podgorica's NATO course runs counter to hundreds of years of "fraternal relations" between the two Slavic, Orthodox Christian nations.

As with neighboring Serbia, Montenegro shares linguistic and cultural roots with Russia, and Russians, including Kremlin-connected billionaire Oleg Deripaska, have made substantial investments in the country in recent years.

The expansion of NATO, and the desires of many Balkan nations for deeper integration into Western institutions, such as that alliance and the European Union, has left the Kremlin with a case of diplomatic sour grapes.

Some Montenegrin lawmakers blame Moscow for an alleged coup attempt last year that was seen as a possible effort by the Kremlin to undermine the NATO push.

Moscow rejects the allegation, but a Montenegrin court began indictment proceedings on May 24 against 14 people, including two Russians and two pro-Russia opposition leaders, who are charged with plotting to overthrow the government in Podgorica.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic (file photo)
Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic (file photo)

"It is clear that the decision [to ban Plantaze wine] is in the context of NATO membership," Prime Minister Dusko Markovic told journalists after the ban was announced.

Plantaze, whose vineyards are the largest by surface area in Europe to be cultivated by a single company, exports to more than 40 countries around the world, including Russia, which accounts for about 20 percent of all shipments abroad, according to Milutinovic.

Some 15,500 bottles were pulled from Russian store shelves when the ban was first announced, and on May 31 another 16,200 were removed.

'Political Decision'

Given the importance of exports to Russia, the winery has filed a claim in Russia to have the ban overturned.

Milutinovic says samples of the wine were sent to three independent laboratories, as well as to one for the European Union. All of the results came back showing the wines were in no way tainted, he says.

"We see this as a kind of political decision, a political moment, which is now very actual in Montenegro, with regard to NATO accession. The decision has no connections with the concrete analysis of Plantaze wines but [rather] with the whole picture of the political situation," Blagota Radulovic of Montenegro's Agriculture Ministry tells RFE/RL.

Montenegro isn't the first country to face Moscow's wrath over grapes.

In 2013, the Kremlin was seen as unhappy with Moldova's drive to join the EU and banned imports of wines and spirits from the ex-Soviet republic claiming they contained impurities.

Similar actions have been taken by Moscow against Georgia and Ukraine at times of heightened diplomatic tensions.

The wine ban is also seen as part of a wider campaign by Moscow to punish Montenegro for its westward-looking policies.

There are an estimated 7,000 Russian nationals who are permanent residents of Montenegro, a nation of about 620,000, and Russians own about 40 percent of the country's desirable Adriatic Sea coast.

In an effort to leverage the considerable contribution that Russian tourists make to Montenegro's economy, in addition to banning Plantaze imports, Moscow also recently tried to dissuade travelers from heading to the Adriatic country, saying it was a nation of "crime, minefields, and dirty beaches."

'Media War'

The Montenegrin Foreign Ministry promptly responded by pointing to the absence of any reported incidents of Russian businessmen or tourists being harassed in Montenegro or experiencing any hostility from local residents.

"This is therefore nothing but manipulation and the continuation of a media war that Moscow has been waging against Montenegro, aimed at blocking its accession to NATO," the ministry said.

Ironically, Plantaze's sprawling operations do have a military history.

The cellars near Podgorica where the vineyard keeps its wines were once a military airport during the reign of Josip Broz Tito in the former Yugoslavia.

The cool, 300-meter long tunnels some 30 meters underground that once sheltered fighter jets during the Cold War now store thousands of liters of wine at an ideal temperature of 17-19 degrees Celsius. The airport was even a target of the NATO bombing campaign of Yugoslavia in 1999.

Back at the Plantaze offices, Milutinovic refuses to put a dollar figure on how much Russia's ban will cost the winery. He says he remains confident that the winery will be vindicated at some point and stockpiles of wine will once again flow to Moscow.

"Hopefully, sometime in the short term we'll see a court ruling that will be positive and in our favor that will allow us to continue to sell our wine in Russia," he says.