Russia suspended imports of dairy products from neighbouring Lithuania today (7 October), turning up trade pressure on the small Baltic country ahead next months's summit in Vilnius, where the bloc is expected to sign a key trade pact with Ukraine.
Russia's consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzo cited quality concerns as the reason for the suspension, just weeks before Lithuania hosts a key summit in Vilnius to promote closer trade ties with Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states who are not members of the EU.
Russia's move further turns up the heat on Lithuania ahead of the summit, which Moscow sees as a threat to its influence in the region. Russia customs authorities recently blocked transport trucks at the border with Lithuania for up to 20 days at a time in recent weeks, causing heavy losses for its freight industry.
In recent weeks, Rospotrebnadzor has been acting more and more as a political arm of the Kremlin. But the European Commission has so far dealt with the tensions as routine trade or consumer protection disputes.
Frederic Vincent, spokesperson to EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg, said that the EU executive had not been formally informed by the Russian federation about the nature of their safety concerns, but that Brussels had full confidence in Lithuania’s dairy products.
“The EU has the most stringent system in the world when it comes to food safety,” Vincent stressed.
Vincent declined to comment on suggestions that the dispute was in fact political rather than merely related to health or trade. Pressed by EURACTIV to comment, he replied that the Commission first had to take a close look at the situation.
He added that the Commission was "pushing" the two sides to negotiate.
'Blatant political pressure'
Lithuania, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, is preparing to host a key summit on on 28-29 October with six countries of the so-called "Eastern partnership", the EU's rapprochement initiative with Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Depending on its progress on a number of outstanding issues, Ukraine is expected to sign an EU association agreement at the summit, containing a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Meanwhile, Moldova and Georgia are expected to initial similar documents at the meeting.
As the summit approaches, Russia has banned the imports of wine from Moldova and chocolate from Ukraine over safety concerns, in what appears to be a strategy to escalate pressure on countries wishing to build closer ties with the European Union (see background).
Russia also told Moldova that it had to choose between cheap gas and EU integration.
The European Parliament has recently adopted a resolution calling on the European Commission to consider Russia’s pressure on neighbours beyond just trade, saying it was “merely a cover for blatant political pressure”.
Asked about the series of decisions by Russia to tighten its trade regime towards Eastern partnership countries in advance of the Vilnius summit, Pia Ahrenkile Hansen, another Commission spokesperson, said no new declaration was to be made at this point in time.