Saturday, April 6, 2013

Wine and visas

by Georgy Kalatozishvili

06.04.2013. Several weeks have passed since the “sanitary inspection” of experts of the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare in Georgia. Russian Chief Sanitary Inspector Gennady Onishchenko gave permission to about 40 Georgian makers of wine and mineral water to sell their products in Russia, although he then suddenly announced that “Borzhomi encountered problems”.

Russian inspectors were very welcome. Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church Ilia II met them personally, a very rare occurrence not only for the Church. Although President Saakashvili called the hospitality “an expression of slavish psychology”, his escapade gained little attention. The president compared Georgia with Germany where “no one would allow some third-rate Russian functionaries for inspection or pour beer saying “Bitte, Bitte, Russischen Revisor”.

The arguments were indeed perceived by the Georgian society. The injury caused by the “bitter defeat” in 2008 has not been treated and President Saakashvili may still play with people’s emotions. But the most important thing is that the Georgian establishment and Ivanishvili’s government have found a consensus on “return of the Russian market”.

The latest events show that such consensus is not enough to settle the problem. The position of Russian agencies requires studies of Moscow’s ability to protect and promote interests. It is not just a matter of returning Georgian wine to Russia. The country has been living without Georgian wine and the young generation has not even noticed the absence of Borzhomi, the favourite drink of their grandparents in the Soviet Era. Russia’s true interest is to convert the desire of Georgian wine manufacturers to return to the profitable market into other aspects of Russian-Georgian cooperation. Georgia is the only country in the world to break diplomatic relations with Russia. In the context of long-term interests of Russia, it is unacceptable, because Georgia is a neighbour state of the North Caucasus striving to join NATO, in other words, to enter a totally different system of state development.

So how can the  rules of the WTO that prevent discrimination of any products be combined with the promotion of national interests? The Russian-Georgian wine front serves as an example of delicate diplomacy. The Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare issued permits to dozens of enterprises registered at Russian agencies, but only the Wine Cellar Kindzmarauli and the Dugladze Wine House managed to register. So where are the others? And why were there only two enterprises? An anonymous wine maker explained the reasons. It turns out that the permits of Russian sanitary services were not enough to renew imports. Manufacturers need to get visas, take a large portion of samples and bring them to Moscow. But the problem is that visas can only be issued by the section of Russian interests at the Swiss Embassy in Georgia, while Russian consuls keep declining Georgian requests. Russia and Georgia have no diplomatic relations.

So by working on trade-economic cooperation Moscow encourages Tbilisi to restore diplomatic relations as the first step towards long-term and reliable settlement of disputes. High-scale trade between the two states is only possible on the condition of a proper visa regime. Visas do not need to be lifted, but their regime should be normal.

Thus, there is no need to complain to the WTO. The sanitary inspection has been carried out, there is no discrimination and permits were granted. However the situation with visas is unique, therefore it is an issue for the UN and the UNSC, not the WTO.

Secondly, the ingenious solution causes a major schism for Georgian establishment. There have been rumours that the Dugladze Wine House and the Kindzmarauli Wine Cellar belong to businessmen that have close ties with Prime Minister Ivanishvili. Denying the rumours is pointless, because they are augmented by grievances of other manufacturers. Wine makers are an influential part of Georgian elites. Levan Gachechiladze, founder of the GWS (Georgian Wines & Spirits), was the leader of the  protests against President Saakashvili in autumn 2007. After the Rose Revolution of 2003, he released a wine called Saakashvili with the president’s portrait, but coincidently he started protests after Gennady Onishchenko’s order to arrest GWS wine worth millions of dollars in Moscow in 2006.

This puts Ivanishvili’s government in a complicated situation. Telling people on television that Moscow associates return of products to its market with issues unrelated to trade would make it seem as though President Saakashvili was right calling Ivanishvili’s ministers “idiots licking the boots of the occupants”.

Nonetheless, the solution is simple to understand. After a meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin in Prague, Georgian special envoy of the prime minister for settlement of relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze announced: “We have managed to return the Russian market for our products without having to make sacrifices in exchange”. But it appears that the Georgian diplomat made hasty conclusions. There is a price for everything, including return of the profitable market. But since the government of Ivanishvili does not restore diplomatic ties to prevent the president’s party from accusations of “opening three embassies in Georgia” (in Tbilisi, Sukhumi and Tskhinval), renewal of mass exports to the Russian market will have to be forgotten for “technical reasons”. The devil, as well as delicate diplomacy, lies in the details.


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