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First Wine, Then Meat, Then Veggies. Now Russia Cuts The (Ukrainian) Cheese

Cheese on display in a Kyiv grocery store. Russia last year accounted for some 80 percent of Ukrainian cheese exports.
Cheese on display in a Kyiv grocery store. Russia last year accounted for some 80 percent of Ukrainian cheese exports.
A dispute over Ukrainian cheese is threatening to further damage relations between Russia and Ukraine, where officials are accusing Moscow of political blackmail.

After Georgian wine, Polish meat, and European vegetables, it's Ukrainian cheese that has come under the scrutiny of Russia's consumer-goods watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor.

The combative agency last week barred imports of cheese from three major Ukrainian producers, accusing them of using excessive quantities of palm oil in their products -- a charge the producers vehemently deny.

Ukraine announced on February 13 that it would send samples to independent laboratories abroad for analysis after Rospotrebnadzor chief Gennady Onishchenko abruptly called off an agreement under which the Russian agency and Ukrainian authorities were meant to jointly inspect the embattled cheese factories.

Like many officials in Kyiv, Anatoli Kinach, a former Ukrainian prime minister and economy minister who now heads the country's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, believes the so-called "cheese war" has, in fact, little to do with food quality.

"This process should be taking place without economic or political pressure," Kinach said. "The fact that Ukraine is forced to turn to a third party is not the ideal method to resolve such an issue."

Political Stunts

His comments echo remarks by Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who has accused Russian dairy producers of initiating the dispute to discredit their Ukrainian rivals.

Russia last year accounted for some 80 percent of Ukrainian cheese exports.
There is definitely a political aspect here.
Pavlo Rozenko

Rospotrebnadzor's past bans on foreign food products have often been denounced as political stunts serving the interests of the Kremlin, and the "cheese war" is no exception.

"There is definitely a political aspect here," said Pavlo Rozenko, an expert on social policy with the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank. "Certain circles in Russia support an ideology that implies controlling Ukraine so that it is forced to compromise on gas issues, on the customs union, the free-trade zone, and more generally on integration processes. And Ukrainian authorities are allowing others to make fun of them by playing the game of integration with Russia and the European Union."

Russia has repeatedly called on Ukraine to join its Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, while Kyiv has been pursuing a free-trade agreement with the European Union.

In recent years, Russia and Ukraine have also bitterly sparred over the price of Russian natural gas.

The impact of the "cheese war" is already being felt in Ukraine. At least one cheese factory has temporarily halted production and economists predict a drop in domestic prices if products originally destined for export start flooding the Ukrainian market.

Written by Claire Bigg, with reporting from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
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