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Russia slaps ban on Lithuanian products amid EU tensions

Dmitry Zaks

Russia has previously placed trade restrictions on former Soviet Union nations to discourage them from building close relations with the EU.

Russia is known to impose trade restrictions on countries warming up to the EU_Getty

Russia said on Saturday it would ban some Lithuanian dairy imports following the tiny Baltic state's attempt to draw ex-Soviet nations, such as Ukraine, closer to the EU.

Lithuania has used its status as holder of the EU's rotating presidency to draw attention to arduous customs checks that Moscow has imposed on eastern European countries now seeking closer relations with Brussels.

Ukraine hopes to sign a landmark association and free trade accord with the EU during a November summit in Vilnius. Russia has responded by imposing detailed customs inspections on Ukrainian products over the summer and spreading those to Lithuanian goods three weeks ago.

The trade row prompted Lithuania to warn Moscow this month that it risked souring ties with the 28-nation bloc if such checks continued. Lithuania also pointed out that it could–but would not–impose the same sanctions on goods travelling over its territory to and from Russia's western exclave of Kaliningrad. 

The veiled warning outraged Russian officials, who on Saturday vowed to ban some Lithuanian dairy imports effective Monday.

"There is every likelihood that Russia will begin limiting the admission of individual groups of dairy products on October 7," news agencies quoted Russia's public health inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, as saying.

"At the start of next week, we will launch a series of measures aimed at halting the admission… of Lithuanian products that do not meet Russian legal requirements aimed at protecting consumer rights."

The ITAR-TASS news agency said Russia has already imposed some import restrictions on Lithuania's top cheese producer Pieno Zvaigzdes. Russia first warned it may ban Lithuanian dairy imports on Wednesday due to "sanitary and epidemiological risks".

Tests on Lithuanian food products had "yielded unsatisfactory results", Onishchenko said at the time.

The dairy industry, which is responsible for about one-fifth of Lithuania's agricultural production, is a vital source of export revenue. Moscow's restrictions would be especially painful because the Russian market accounts for about 85% of Lithuania's total dairy exports.

The nation of three million, which hopes to swap its currency for the euro by 2015, is keen to avoid any economic shocks that may derail those plans. It has also sought the defence of larger European countries by promoting a united EU stance against Russia's trade bans.

Moscow has frequently been accused of using import restrictions as a weapon against ex-Soviet countries seeking greater independence or warmer relations with the west.

Russia has slapped trade sanctions on Moldova and Georgia during those countries' attempts to set up a process for their eventual membership in the EU. It has also twice cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine and waged brief energy wars with Belarus.

Lithuania's dairy industry already faced Russian restrictions in mid-2009 when local milk and cheese producers expressed fears of being squeezed from their own market. But Russia's important bans have been known to backfire, and there were signs on Saturday that Ukraine was edging ever closer to signing the EU association and free trade deal.

Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych announced that he would meet his Polish counterpart in Krakow on Monday for talks also involving the presidents of Germany and Italy.

EU foreign ministers are expected to decide whether to recommend the new Ukranian agreement on October 21. – AFP 

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