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This Man Decides Whether Russians Consume Moldovan Wine, Lithuanian Cheese, and Ukrainian Chocolate

Tuesday, October 15

You may not have heard of Gennady Onishchenko, but if his own accounts are to be believed, he's the Russian government official who single-handedly averts major public health crises posed by foreign countries' dangerously lax and unsophisticated food safety standards (including those in a certain country where the federal government has ground to a halt). To others, Onishchenko, Russia's chief sanitary inspector, is also Russia's chief manufacturer of elaborate food safety scares to wage geopolitically motivated trade wars with other countries, particularly former Soviet republics.

On Wednesday, Onishchenko, the director of Rospotrebnadzor, Russia's consumer-protection agency, announced a ban on 28 Georgian alcoholic products, a mere seven months after a 2006 ban on Georgian beverages was lifted. Earlier this week, he added Lithuanian dairy products to the long list of (mostly) ex-Soviet state-made products that ostensibly threaten Russian consumers. Further down on that list are Ukrainian chocolates, Moldovan wine, and -- yes -- meat from the United States. Notably, many of these bans came on the heels of warming trade relations between the banned countries and NATO or the European Union -- moves that aren't popular with the Kremlin, which is trying to strong-arm its neighbors into joining a Russian-led customs union.

Onishchenko feels strongly about the value of eating Russian food -- and only Russian food. At a press briefing earlier this year, he implored Russians to suppress their hankering for foreign foods in favor of "food patriotism."

"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 said.

This "food patriotism" was undoubtedly at the root of Onishchenko's war on hamburgers last year, when he reminded Russians that hamburgers "are not a good choice of meal for residents of Moscow and of Russia. This is not our cuisine."

Onishchenko has repeatedly denied that his agency's bans on foreign products are politically motivated, but the circumstances surrounding the prohibitions suggest otherwise. Take the case of this year's ban on the Ukrainian confectionary company Roshen; Onishchenko was supposedly concerned about carcinogens found in milk chocolate -- but only in the chocolate produced in Ukraine, not in the company's two factory locations in other countries. The ban also came in September, after a major dust-up between Russia and Ukraine over gas pipelines and in the run-up to November's Eastern Partnership summit, where Ukraine may sign a free trade agreement with the EU. If Kiev signs the agreement, the government will decline membership in the Russian-led Eurasian customs union.

Similarly, this week's renewed ban on Georgian drinks does not apply to the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, where the product's quality apparently "remains stable."

The reasoning behind the Roshen chocolate ban may have been flawed, but it was at least easier to understand than the vague non-reasoning Onishchenko offered for the Lithuanian dairy ban. "Nobody knows exactly what indications Russian customs have or what the reasons are for the sanctions," Arturas Paulauskas, the head of the Lithuanian parliament's National Security and Defense Committee, told Reuters in a statement.

Moldova was similarly bewildered when Russia announced a ban on Moldovan wines and spirits in September. "We will have to clarify where technical problems about the quality of Moldovan wineend and where the political aspects begin," Economy Minister Valerii Lazar told Reuters.

Through it all, Onishchenko has clung steadfastly to his claim that the bans are a necessity for Russian consumers -- while still glossing over the particulars of his concerns. "The [Moldova] ban is a necessary step that we have undertaken reluctantly, but it is the only possible way of solving the present situation," he told Interfax news agency. "There have been violations in technical preparation, storage, and end production."

Perhaps nothing irks Onishchenko more than wine made in Georgia -- also the country with which Russia arguably has the most strained relationship. At a June press conference held when the original 2006 ban on Georgian wine and mineral water ended this year, he flew off the handle about the (pretty standard) practice of making wine from grapes. The Georgians "are destroying grapes by making wine from it," he complained. "Grapes are a holy fruit, a fruit from God, worshipped by pagans and Christians alike, and they make alcohol from it!" When the conversation turned to Georgian mineral water, he waxed nostalgic, warning reporters that the Georgian import would not taste like it did back in Soviet days.

At times, Onishchenko's public health opinions align rather neatly with the Kremlin's domestic needs. In 2011, for instance, he issued warnings about the health dangers, including exposure to the flu and even SARS, of participating in massive protests in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square against parliamentary elections and Vladimir Putin's party.

It's not unusual, of course, for countries to wield trade restrictions as a weapon in punishing or arm-twisting geopolitical adversaries. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a food safety inspector out there with as much geopolitical clout as Russia's foreign food czar.
Posted By Katelyn Fossett, Foreign Policy, Oct 10, 2013