Ukraine Russia RelationsThe chief of Russia’s consumer protection agency, Gennady Onishenko, warned that his country might limit the import of Ukrainian agricultural products by May 2012. The announcement came after an initiative by the Ukrainian authorities to bring its existing food oversight body in line with EU standards, and several weeks after the annual Ukraine-EU Summit, which focused on the Free Trade Agreement.

The consolidation of Ukraine’s veterinary service into a single entity responsible for overseeing food quality is “an experiment that the Ukrainian authorities are conducting on their citizens,” according to Onishenko. Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Konstyantyn Gryshenko, demanded an apology and called such remarks “a provocation”. Whilst the bi-lateral nature of this affair is obvious, its broader context and implications for Russia’s current and potential influence in the post-Soviet space are less apparent.

Naturally, the immediate effect of import restrictions would be on Ukraine’s agricultural exporters. It is a genuine concern for a country whose share of commodity exports (including agriculture) to the CIS region has been growing since 2005 - currently accounting for almost 40 percent, while commodity exports to the EU have dropped to almost 24 percent in the same time period.

The use of economic means to achieve political aims is nothing new in the post-Soviet space, where Russia has remained eager to maintain its economic and political influence after the collapse of the USSR. And - after all - it was Onishenko who implemented import restrictions on Georgian wines and mineral water in the midst of the country’s military conflict with Russia in August 2008.

The current Ukraine-Russia food debacle is occurring against the background of Ukraine’s on-going attempts to re-negotiate the gas agreement initially concluded in 2009 by Ukraine’s ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko. Unsatisfied with the high prices, the Ukrainian authorities initiated revisions to the terms of the Russian gas deal. But Gazprom has been reluctant to provide any significant price reductions without any concrete promises of controlling Ukraine’s gas transit system (GTS), used to transport Russian gas to the EU. Such a possibility has caused internal divisions amongst Ukraine’s oligarchs and the closest allies of President Victor Yanukovych.

While the first group is eager to do anything that would ensure cheaper gas supplies for their energy-starved enterprises,  Yanukovych and team are fully aware that Russia’s control of the GTS would deprive the country and the president himself of an important bargaining chip, opening the door to Russia’s complete dominance in the region. In other words, Yanukovych is not ready to assume the fate of the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko - at least not yet. Consequently, Ukraine’s control over its GTS will greatly depend on Yanukovych’s ability to resist both the growing pressure from internal business groups AND Russia’s usual practice of economic bullying - something which has demonstrated its effectiveness in the past.


(Photo © Mohamed Sami)