Thursday, March 7, 2013

"Financial Times": Russia & Georgia: wine tasting

by Isabel Gorst

07.03.2013. Sanitary inspectors in Russia look set to lift a ban on Georgian wine and mineral water imports imposed in 2006 for reasons that probably had more to do with politics than hygiene.

The end of the embargo would mark a small step towards the restoration of ties between the two countries that fought a war in 2008 over Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Doctor Gennady Onishchenko the head of Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s consumer protection watchdog, said 36 Georgian wine producers could submit samples of their products for inspection – a prelude to a case by case lifting of the embargo, RIA Novosti reported on Wednesday.

Onishchenko was speaking after Rospotrebnadzor inspectors visited more than 90 Georgian wineries last month in what sounds like a wonderful trip. Another survey expected to take place after March 25th could clear the way for Georgia to resume supplies to Russia of chacha, a hard liquor made of grapes that is similar to Italian grappa.

Russia slapped the embargo on Georgian wine in 2006 citing sanitary concerns. But many believed the restrictions had more to do with the downturn in relations between the two countries in the wake of Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution that swept the hot-headed, western-leaning Mikhail Saakashvili to power.
Hopes of an early end to the restrictions were dashed when Russia and Georgia broke off diplomatic relations after fighting a brief war in 2008 over Georgia’s break away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Kremlin recognised the regions as independent states in a move that contravenes international law.

The ban, depriving Georgia of access to its biggest market for wine looked disastrous for the tiny South Caucasus nation at the time, but was in some ways beneficial. Georgian vintners that traditionally turned out large volumes of sweet sticky wines have been forced to tailor their products to suit more discerning palates as new outlets were found in Europe, the US and China.

Georgian wine exports earned $64.8m in 2012 – 2.7 per cent of the country’s of the country’s total foreign trade – and, although short of the $81.2m earned in 2005, it was a record since the ban was imposed.

Just why Moscow has decided to rethink the Georgian wine ban may have something to do with Russia’s entry to the World Trade Organization last year. Trade embargoes need a lot of explaining to get round the WTO’s commitment to unfettered trade.

Also, Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group earlier this year bought control of Borjomi, Georgia’s salty sparkling mineral water that was long a Soviet favourite, for a reported $300m.

Another reason could be the shifting political scene in Tbilisi where Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party won a surprise victory in a parliamentary election last October against Saakashvili’s United National Movement.

Ivanishvili, a businessmen who made his fortune in Russia, has pledged to put relations between Tbilisi and Moscow on a better footing while insisting that Georgia will never give up the campaign to regain control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Putin, who has refused to consider restoring Russian diplomatic ties with Georgia as long as Saakashvili is in power, may believe that Ivanishvili will be easier to deal with.

But even if there is a bottle of Georgian wine on the table it will be some time before the two men can sit down together in Moscow and talk, Ivanishvili warned this week. Speaking in Tbilisi this week, Georgia’s prime minister ruled out an early meeting with the Russian leadership. and warned it would be “very difficult” to build a new relationship with Russia.

“It will take a lot of time to prepare step by step for a high-level meeting that will require the full understanding of both Georgian and Russian society,” he told the Georgian television station Imedi.

Russian sanitary inspectors have a reputation for fastidiousness bordering on paranoia. Only today Nikolai Vlasov , the deputy head of the Russian agricultural products agency, warned in an interview with Rossiskaya Gazeta, the state-owned newspaper, of the risks of importing Indian beef or American milk that can make “women grow beards.”

Against this backdrop it would not be difficult for Doctor Onishchenko to find a reason to uphold the ban on Georgian wine. In the meantime, Abkhazian wine is slowly making its way onto Russian supermarket shelves. At around Rbs 400 a bottle it’s not a bad buy if the thought of the politics doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth.

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