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By John Helmer in Moscow

Gennady Onishchenko (picture) would flog a dead horse to protect domestic product market share against foreign imports, and that’s as good as protecting Russian consumer health, even better perhaps.

Onishchenko saved Russians from the perils of Belarus milk last June and then in January he rescued the state from American chicken and pork.

This week’s target is a low price, red wine from Moldova, one of the Carahasani winery’s Cabernets. According to a notice posted on June 29 by the Federal Consumer Protection Agency (Rospotrebnadzor, RPN), which Onishchenko heads, a recent inspection revealed something “not meeting the requirements of safety”. Exactly what this was isn’t set out in the notice, except that it is violation of the agency’s regulation, SanPiN2.3.2.1078-01. When the agency was asked when the inspection took place, what was wrong with the wine, and what would happen to a Russian who would drink it, Onishchenko’s spokesman, Lyubov Voropayeva, said all the information they can share is published on their website. She refused to say more.

A spokesman for the Consumer Rights Protection Society said their membership smells a rat in the bottle, but isn’t sure of the motive. “I cannot comment on the quality and composition of the wine inspected by Rospotrebnadzor,” the source told Fairplay. “That is not our competence. But we have a strong feeling that the previous ban against Moldovan wine did not affect the consumer market of Russia, because the wine was reaching the market all the same, through third countries and with dubious schemes. In fact, the [previous] restriction only led to growth of wine prices, and we believe that if another ban is introduced, these schemes will be revived.”

Moldovan wine isn’t world famous, but it has been the market leader in Russia – one bottle out of every two uncorked and drunk in Russia has come from there; at least that was in the days when Onishchenko wasn’t involved. More than 30 Moldovan enterprises ship wine to Russia.

Vadim Drobiz, head of the Center for Research on Federal and Regional Markets for Alcohol (TsIFRRA), told Fairplay that in 2005, the last year when there were no Russian government restrictions on imports of the wine, a total of 400 million litres of wine were imported. Of that, 200 million litres of bottled wine and 50 million litres of wine-making concentrate, market share came from Moldova. According to Drobiz, this was more than rot-gut and plonk. “I have to admit that the Moldovan wine materials for sparkling wines are among the best in the world, similar to French by quality.”

In 2006, he says, “total imports to Russia fell 30%, and another 16% reduction came in 2008. In total, Russia imported 250 million litres of wine in 2008-09. In this volume, just 10% was accounted by Moldova. The Moldovan imports in 2009 cost $150 million.”

Onishchenko’s agency was responsible for some of the cutbacks. In March 2006, Russia banned Moldovan imports, claiming pesticides and heavy metal traces had been detected. Then in the second half of 2007, it was officially decided to resume deliveries from Moldova could resume. In July 2009, all restrictions on Moldovan wine were lifted. According to TsIFFRA data, in 2009 Moldovan wine exporters increased shipments to Russia up to 12.5% of the aggregate. And in the first quarter of this year, Moldovan wine had moved into second place among imports, with a 17.2% share. France took first place with 21.3%; Germany third place with 14%.

As the Moldovan volumes rose and market share picked up, Onishchenko moved in. On April 26, Onishchenko told a state news agency that RPN had seized a 50,000 litre shipment of wine concentrate, revealing that another shipment had been stopped of 47,000 litres earlier the same month. He agreed to refer the quality problems to a conference of experts, Russian and Moldovan, which was held in Moscow in May. The Moldovan vice-minister for agriculture and food industry, Vasily Bumakov, attended, along with 50 Moldovan vignerons. The host was the Association of Alcohol Market Participants of the Russian Federation (AURA).

Bumakov said publicly that in order to avoid quality control problems, his ministry was negotiating with Onishchenko to recognize quality certificates issued by a laboratory in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. He also said that Onishchenko wasn’t in a hurry to agree, but proposed a “phased solution” to laboratory certification.

Drobiz for the Russian experts has told Fairplay that Onishchenko had met with AURA, and promised that he would not use the RPN’s inspection powers for political reasons. He also told AURA that Moldovan winemakers had to comply with Russian quality standards but he did not commit himself to an agreed laboratory certification process. “I believe,” says Drobiz, “that we should be impartial. Before accusing Onishchenko of political games, the [latest] seized shipment should be analyzed by an independent laboratory.”

Politically, relations between Moldova and Russia have been affected for two decades by the conflict over the breakaway region of TransDniester (Transnistria), in the west of the republic, whose autonomy is supported by Moscow, and whose reintegration backed by anti-Russian sentiment from Romania, in the east. Since the unilateral secession of TransDniester from the Moldovan republic in 1990, as Moldova established its own independence of the Soviet Union, there were two years of warfare, followed by an uneasy peace, backed Russian troops as peacekeepers.

The Moldovan parliament elects the president, and as long as the Moldovan communist party has held a majority of seats, and the president has been a communist, relations with Moscow have been relatively calm, and the wine trade has flourished. When Vladimir Voronin resigned as president in September of 2009, his replacement, the parliamentary speaker Mihai Ghimpu has served as acting president – without a parliamentary majority. Ghimpu is a member of the minority Liberal Party, which won about 13% of the popular vote at last year’s parliamentary elections.

Ghimpu is believed to be the reason for the new Russian trouble for Moldovan wine. That is because he has mobilized anti-communist and anti-Russian support with the announcement of June 28 as a “Day of Soviet Occupation”. While referring to the day in 1940, when Soviet troops entered parts of Romania, the declaration also triggers a countrywide split over the Romanian military alliance with Hitler; the reoccupation by Romanian fascists of the territory occupied by the Soviets, and the liquidation of the Romanian Jews, including 300,000 from TransDniester. The Red Army retook the area from the Germans in the first half of 1944.

Onishchenko has said his crackdown was not linked to Ghimpu’s Day of Soviet Occupation.

Onishchenko has also revealed the reason that Russians smoke so much. “Today,” the chief inspector said on June 10, “Russia makes 400 billion cigarettes,” he said. “There is not a single tobacco bush growing in Russia. All this is a credit to the North American business that came to our country in the 1990s and bought the entire tobacco industry.”

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