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Monday, June 3, 2013

Russia-Georgia: Preparing for Food Fight II?

by Giorgi Lomsadze

03.06.2013. Anxious for peace with Russia, Georgian officials and businessmen recently have been taking turns bowing and refilling 62-year-old Russian food security tsar Gennadiy Onishchenko's glass with the finest beverages Georgia’s got to offer. But nothing seems to suit the delicate palate of Gennady Grigoryevich [Mr. Onishchenko - НN]

His complaints range from the quality-related to the political and downright philosophical. But the Onishchenkoisms, delivered with a stern face, always tend to hit whenever Tbilisi-Moscow ties are going south.

In 2006, with the Kremlin increasingly uneasy about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a potential exporter of revolution, Onishchenko struck, slapping an embargo on Georgian wines, mineral waters and fruits and vegetables as unsafe.

But after Georgia’s new government began an active campaign of reconciliation with Russia, Onishchenko allowed long-banned Georgian wine and prized mineral water Borjomi back north of the Caucasus mountain range.

Now, the mood seems to be changing again. After Georgia announced 2014 as its latest target for receiving a North Atlantic Treaty Organization Membership Action Plan, the Russians started building a fence inside Georgian territory that borders on breakaway South Ossetia. Tbilisi complained, and Onishchenko reappeared once again with his own complaints.

When asked about the state of Georgian beverages at a recent news conference, Onishchenko flew off on a tangent taking issue with the Georgian (and worldwide) practice of making wine from grapes. “They [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!”

The jeremiad did not end there. Onishchenko told Russians not to expect the newly returned Borjomi water to taste like it did in Soviet times, a frequent refrain of many older Russians, who believe everything tasted better in the USSR. Old-school specialists were true artists, who treated the water as a child, Onishchenko said. They “knew every whim of the water of life."

But the best piece he saved for the end. Georgians, he claimed, have contaminated pigs in southern Russia with African swine fever, and the virus is decimating the local swine population. “This is well-planned sabotage… that was without doubt done from Georgian territory,” he proclaimed, without bothering about the details, the BBC's Russian service reported.

Granted, Onishchenko has had some important advice to dispense for Russians, too -- not to eat donuts in a prone position, and not to eat snow in any position.

But could this latest spell of grumpiness mean that Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's attempts to make friends with Russia will hit a wall, just as have those of all preceding Georgian leaders whenever core issues are touched upon? For an indicator, it could prove helpful to keep an eye on what "Grim Gennady" has to say and when.

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