The politics of cheese and chocolate


Just as Russians have been getting used to drinking excellent Georgian wine and mineral water again after a seven year embargo, their taste buds have been assaulted by new trade bans with neighbouring countries.

Annabelle Chapman
16 January 2014

Ukrainian chocolates, Moldovan wine and Lithuanian dairy products are  just some of the food products banned by Russia in recent months, and now Russia’s New Year resolutions have included a ban on Estonian dairy and fish products as well.

Ukrainian chocolates, Moldovan wine and Lithuanian dairy products are  just some of the food products banned by Russia in recent months, and now Russia’s New Year resolutions have included a ban on Estonian dairy and fish products as well.

According to Russian officials, these products fail to meet relevant health and safety standards, despite having always been popular in Russia. Georgia’s famous Borjomi mineral water, for instance, has been valued in Russia for its health benefits (which evidently include curing hangovers) since Tsarist soldiers stumbled on upon its springs in the 1830s.

But the gourmets are fighting back. Irina Lagunina, managing editor of RFE/RL’s Russian service, can be seen in a video preparing a delicious meal using only ingredients that are, or have been in the past, banned  by Russia - Polish meat with Moldovan onions, Tajik dried fruits and Belarusian sour cream, to be accompanied by red Saperavi wine from Georgia or Moldovan Chardonnay, and rounded off with Ukrainian Roshen chocolates.

A meal made eniterly of products that are or were banned in Russia. Video from RFERL

Georgia’s famous Borjomi mineral water has been valued in Russia for its ability to cure hangovers since Tsarist soldiers stumbled on upon its springs in the 1830s.

Health and safety – or just politics?

As many observers have pointed out, the bans have coincided with bumpier periods in each of these countries’ relations with Russia. The latest bans on Ukrainian and Moldovan products came a few months before the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit, where Kyiv was expected to sign, and Chisinau initial, an EU trade deal. Lithuania, which was preparing to host the summit, was next in turn. And just before the ban on Estonian goods was introduced, Estonia’s foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu was in Washington to discuss defence cooperation with his American counterpart (having recently backed the idea of a permanent US military presence in Estonia).

Behind these bans is Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s consumer protection agency. Over the years, the name of its long-serving head Gennady Onishchenko has become became synonymous with trade embargoes, although he is also known for offering bizarre pieces of advice to his countrymen. At one point, he called on Russians to follow a patriotic diet, avoiding all foreign foods. ‘We put our faith in the high level of consciousness and food patriotism of our citizens, the ones who have long abandoned the use of such food in their diet,’ he declared in June 2013.

When Onishchenko lost his job in October 2013, some observers thought that Russia would start abiding more closely by the requirements of the WTO, which it finally joined in 2012. But as the new ban on Estonian products shows, not much has changed since his deputy, Anna Popova, took charge.

The cost of a market lost

For products where Russia accounts for a large share of exports, the bans have been costly. Two months into its wine ban, the Moldovan government calculated that it was costing the country $3.3 million per month. And the Lithuanian parliament’s European Affairs committee estimated that the ban on their dairy products was costing up to $4 million a day – exports to Russia accounted for up to 40 per cent of the revenue of its four largest producers.

In addition to day-to-day losses, a longer ban can lose a product its place on the Russian market. By the time Borjomi returned to Russia after seven years, it had been replaced on the shelves by domestic brands. Its chief executive said that the water would now have to be marketed as a luxury product, competing with French brands such as Evian and Perrier.

The Freedom Cheese initiative has a website and a Twitter profile urging people to buy Lithuanian cheese, and an interactive map shows shops in Europe and the USA that sell it.

But Lithuania especially hasn’t been taking its ban lying down, and has been gathering international support after its Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius coined the hashtag #freedomcheese in response to a tweet by senior editor of the Economist Edward Lucas. The Freedom Cheese initiative has a website and a Twitter profile urging people to ‘buy Lithuanian cheese and act against Russia's will to suppress states that encourage freedom, openness and integration’, and an interactive map showing shops in Europe and the United States that sell Lithuanian cheese has received almost 11,000 views.


Even Lithuanian cheese has become political; here Chancellor Merkel is being presented a basket of it by President Grybauskaite. Photo: R. Dackus

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė was also photographed presenting Angela Merkel with Džiugas, a well-known Lithuanian cheese, and the German Chancellor was quoted by the Lithuanian media saying that she supported Lithuania and liked its cheese. EU trade commissioner Karel de Gucht meanwhile criticised Moscow’s restrictive measures towards Lithuanian products, and the EU warned Russia over the ban at a WTO meeting.

Yet by the time I arrived in Vilnius for the Eastern Partnership summit on 28-29 November, the ban appeared to have receded from the news. One Lithuanian analyst that I spoke to went so far as to argue that it stems from rivalries within the Russian freight driving hierarchy. Linas Linkevičius is however in no doubt that the ban was politically motivated. ‘Everything was delicious and high quality’, he told me in Vilnius. ‘[Lithuanian] dairy products are very popular in Russia, especially in the Kaliningrad region – and suddenly they were of inferior quality. And they provided no proof for that.’

 ‘Interestingly, there was no information [from the Russian side]. We received all the information via websites and interviews, and had no response to our official documents or letters.’ How to avoid this in the future? ‘European unity,’ answered Linkevičius, adding that he thought the EU had passed the test in this respect.

Now that the Ukrainian government has dropped the EU deal, Rospotrebnadzor says that Roshen chocolates will be available in Russia as soon as the supposed health issues are sorted out.

Bans can of course also be revoked as political circumstances change. The return of Georgian wine and mineral water after seven years appeared to reflect warming relations between Tbilisi and Moscow after Bidzina Ivanishvili became prime minister. And now that the Ukrainian government has dropped the EU deal, Rospotrebnadzor says that Roshen chocolates will be available in Russia as soon as the supposed health issues are sorted out. During the last days of Lithuania’s EU presidency, it also announced that the ban on Lithuanian products would soon be lifted.

More bans to come?

Russia has been imposing trade bans for years, but the number of cases in 2013 suggests that it may be reaching for this weapon more often. It seems that as soon as there is some disagreement with one of its neighbours, Russia sends out its health and safety inspectors. The day after hooligans attacked the Russian Embassy in Warsaw on Polish Independence Day (11th November), the Polish news agency PAP reported that Russia was beginning checks on Polish meat, which it had previously banned in 2005-2007.

When Georgia and Moldova initialled Association Agreements with the EU in November, there was particular concern about how Russia would respond. Both countries still need to sign the agreements, but after what happened with Ukraine, Brussels has decided to speed up the process and they should be signed by August 2014 at the latest.


Borjomi mineral water from Georgia was banned by Russia seven years ago for failing to meet relevant health and safety standards, despite the fact that it has been valued for its health benefits since the 1830s. Photo: A Chapman

During the Vilnius summit, I asked Poland’s foreign minister Radosław Sikorski if he wasn’t concerned about Russia banning food imports from additional countries – including Poland. ‘There are all sorts of trade disputes,’ he replied. ‘I believe that WTO rules and the existing [EU] Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia should be honoured, and countries have the right to take disputes to these bodies.’

Faced with a similar question Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, recalled his trip to Vilnius in 1991, during Moscow’s economic blockade on Lithuania after it declared its independence after over four decades in the Soviet Union. ‘It was very cold and dark then,’ he told a group of European journalists in the Lithuanian capital. “But it didn’t change the course of history in any direction that was favourable to Russia.’

 ‘I think we need to look at this somewhat more coherently,’ he continued. ‘It has become a disturbing pattern in Europe, the way Russia uses economic weapons against its neighbours.’

Trade bans are just one of the measures Russia uses to target disobedient states. Yet as international political specialist Judy Dempsey has argued in her Strategic Europe blog, the bans ‘reveal desperation on the part of Moscow’ and could end up being counterproductive for Russia.

Meanwhile, the trade bans are forcing countries to rethink where they send their products. This reorientation doesn’t happen overnight, as Lithuania’s dairy producers have discovered. But it can work in the longer term; by the time Russia allowed Borjomi back in, its chief executive was saying that Russia was no longer a priority as the company had expanded into more distant locations such as China and Japan.

The EU may be seeing a lot more Moldovan wine soon, too. When Moscow first banned it in 2006-2007, about 60% of Moldova’s wine was being exported to Russia; by the time it banned it again, in September 2013, this had decreased to 29%. The same month, the European Commission proposed to fully open the EU market to Moldovan wines, and Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting a winery on his trip to Moldova in December, announced US measures to promote Moldovan wine on the international market.

Moscow’s trade bans are one of the prickly subjects EU leaders ought to broach at the next EU-Russia summit, on 28th January.  According to the head of the European Commission’s delegation to Russia, the agenda will include the EU and Russia’s ‘respective regional economic integration initiatives, common neighbourhood, trade questions and WTO commitments’. Still, the EU may find that Rospotrebnadzor will continue to decide which products are fit for Russians to consume.


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