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10 December 2023

Ukraine, Russia trade accusations in cheese 'war'

By Reuters

Ukraine accused Russia on Monday of blocking Ukrainian cheese imports for political reasons in an escalation of a food quality dispute between the two former Soviet nations.

Russian consumer goods watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, barred imports of cheese made by three Ukrainian producers last week after accusing them of using excessive quantities of palm oil, a cheap substitute for milk.

Ukrainian producers deny this and officials from both sides agreed last Thursday to resolve the issue by having Rosportebnadzor inspect their facilities together with the Ukrainian authorities.

After the agreement was announced, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the conflict was a result of lobbying by Russian dairy producers, while Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko said it would hurt Russian consumers above all.

Rospotrebnadzor head Gennady Onishchenko then called off the agreement on joint inspections, triggering another angry response from Kiev.

"Mr Onishchenko should evaluate cheese quality rather than political statements by the head of the Foregn Ministry," Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Dikusarov said.

"Onishchenko's statement shows that this issue is political," he told Reuters.

Rospotrebnadzor's actions have often coincided with Russian foreign policy aims.

The agency banned imports of wine from Moldova in 2010, weeks after it irritated Moscow by adding a "Soviet occupation day" to its calender of national holidays. It has also banned imports of wine and bottled water from long-time foe Georgia.

Russia accounted for 80 percent of Ukrainian cheese exports last year, or $350 million in revenues, according to Ukrainian business weekly Delovaya Stolitsa.

Moscow has long urged Kiev to join the Customs Union it has established together with ex-Soviet allies Belarus and Kazakhstan.

But Ukraine has refused, pursuing a free trade deal with the European Union instead, which it hopes to sign this year.

Kiev and Moscow are also at odds over the price of Russian gas which Ukraine imports. Ukrainian officials say the supply agreement signed in 2009 sets an exorbitant price for the fuel but Russia has been reluctant to review it.

"This cheese war fits within the overall theme of (Russia) putting pressure on Ukraine," Voldymyr Fesenko, an analyst Ukrainian think tanmk Penta, said.

"This is all tactics and the strategy remains the same -- dragging Ukraine into the Customs Union."