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By John Helmer, Moscow

A century ago and longer, the Ottomans understood not to press the Russians in close encounters; the Turks are slow learners. After several recent episodes in which the Turkish armed forces have attempted to interfere with Russian vessels delivering cargo to Syria, the Russians have now delivered the message that Turkish cargoes headed for Russia may be stopped altogether.

The subtlety of this message has yet to be detected by the Anglo-American war media. They are still blustering over the message the Syrians delivered when they used Russian-made cannons to shoot down an American-made Turkish spy plane over Syrian territory on June 22.

Six days later, on June 28, the Russian government’s food safety and quarantine service Rosselkhoznadzor (RSN) issued an announcement disclosing that it had detected 33 cases of infestation in Turkish exports to Russia of fruits and vegetables. The detection had reportedly taken place over the previous six months, possibly longer. The pests were identified in the official announcement as “the American white moth and the western (California) flower thrip”. RSN said it had “appealed to the General Directorate of Protection and Control of the Turkish Ministry of Food Agriculture and Livestock to take urgent measures to ensure full compliance with Russian and international phytosanitary requirements for the regulated supply of Turkish goods to Russia.” Then followed the warning of a trade embargo. “As you know, in 2005 Rosselkhoznadzor was forced to introduce restrictive measures on imports of Turkish plant products due to the discovery of systemic [infestation] in the quarantine facilities in Russia.”

The RSN announcement might have identified the pests by their common English or Latin names – the fall webworm or Hyphantria cunea, as the moth is known, and the western flower thrip, Frankliniella occidentalis. But RSN probably wasn’t intending a reminder of the entomological history according to which the insects were native to the US and migrated from there to Europe. Explicitly naming the insects as American, however, appears to have been intended to convey the larger point – by relying on American infestation of the political and military sort, going to war against Syria, and imposing an armed cordon around its supply lines, Turkey is putting at risk its trade with Russia. The Turkish generals may enjoy their warmaking; Turkish farmers may not.

Turkish customs data show that this is a particularly sensitive time of the year for the Turks to appreciate a Russian threat to shoot down Turkish strawberries, pomegranates, cherries, tomatoes and peppers. That’s because the value of Turkish exports to Russia, all products, in the five months to May 31 has been running at a record level – $2.6 billion so far, with more than $6.2 billion possible by year’s end. If achieved, that would be higher than the $6 billion value reached last year, and in 2008. In between, the value of Turkish exports sank as low as $2.5 billion in the recession year of 2009.

Russia ranks the third largest of Turkey’s export markets, behind Germany and the UK; it is roughly equal with Italy. An estimated 20% of the value of Turkish exports to Russia is generated by fruits and vegetables; for Turkish strawberries and tomatoes, Russia is the leading buyer.

Russian Customs figures show that this March imports of Turkish tomatoes hit a quarterly record of 97,295 tonnes, worth $90.8 million. At this rate, the trade is 4% better than last year by volume, though lower tomato prices have cut the value by about 13% compared to the first quarter of 2011.

Alexei Alekseyenko, a spokesman for RSN, said that for the time being no action to impose the quarantine has been taken beyond the warning to the Turks to clean up their act and get rid of the American infestation. RSN says that since June 28 the Turks haven’t had time to reply to the Russian demarche.

A leading food sector analyst at a Moscow bank says the impact of the threatened cutoff in the fruit and vegetable trade would be decidedly asymmetrical. For Russians an embargo on the Turkish imports would have little impact at this time of year, he believes, because “it is always possible to switch [import purchasing] from Turkey to another country. Because now it’s the [summer] season, so there are a lot of alternatives — from Central Asia or the Caucasus. But as for Turkey, this is naturally bad news, because they export to Russia amounts a very large share of their production.” More than one billion dollars’ worth annually.

The Russian move against Turkish agribusiness is an invitation to count what Turkey’s war against Syria may cost Turkish growers and traders. The source adds that he doesn’t doubt that moth and thrip infestation occurs in cargoes imported from other countries. But he is convinced that Turkey is being singled out by the Kremlin. “In this case, it seems to me, that it is an easy reminder to Turkey that it is no longer in an imperial position [towards its neighbours]. And that someone else [Russia] is an ally of Syria. I suppose that it will be possible to predict the next political steps, if Turkey does not reconsider its plans for Syria. And this is just a reminder for Turkey, so far as it depends on Russia. There are many levers of pressure. This is one.”

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