The so-called cheese war is threatening to further damage relations between Russia and Ukraine, where officials are accusing Moscow of political blackmail.

Moscow is using these claims to settle its foreign policy tasks - to involve Ukraine into integration processes, including Customs Union, Common Economic Area, Eurasian union.
Russia's consumer-goods watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor withdrew five tons of Ukrainian and banned more than 120 tons over the failure of Ukrainian producers to meet Russian food standards.

"(The service) has suspended sale of nearly five tons of Ukrainian cheese and banned import of 128,500 tons of cheese to the Russian Federation following the results of checks," the service said in a statement.

The watchdog has imposed the ban on products of Prometei, the Peryatinsky cheese-making plant and Gadyachsyr for violations of Russian milk and milk product standards, but the list of Ukrainian producers whose production is doubted has been enlarged, the service says.

Ukraine announced on February 13 that it would send samples to independent laboratories abroad for analysis after Rospotrebnadzor chief Gennady Onishchenko abruptly called off an agreement under which the Russian agency and Ukrainian authorities were meant to jointly inspect the embattled cheese factories.

Like many officials in Kyiv, Anatoli Kinach, a former Ukrainian prime minister and economy minister who now heads the country's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, believes the so-called "cheese war" has, in fact, little to do with food quality.

"This process should be taking place without economic or political pressure," Kinach said. "The fact that Ukraine is forced to turn to a third party is not the ideal method to resolve such an issue."

His comments echo remarks by Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who has accused Russian dairy producers of initiating the dispute to discredit their Ukrainian rivals.

Rospotrebnadzor's past bans on foreign food products have often been denounced as political stunts serving the interests of the Kremlin, and the "cheese war" is no exception.

ForUm has asked Russian and international experts on the meaning of the "cheese conflict".

Grigoriy Karasin, deputy foreign minister of Russia:

- There is no need to dramatize the current situation. It concerns the import of a concrete group of products, which do not fully meet the new norms of Customs Union. On various reasons the sides politicize this issue, giving it some hidden messages or linking it to gas talks. But it is not the case.

At the same time, certain representatives of the Russian Federation could have been more delicate in their statements, when the matter concerns our strategic partner Ukraine.

Igor Shuvalov, first vice PM of Russia:

- The cheese case proves that our countries need closer dialogue on important issues. The year of work of the Customs Union showed significant effect from liquidation of excessive barriers among the trade partners. I do not see any obstacles for similar rapprochement with Ukraine.

I think the sides will agree on further actions within couple of months. We will hold an expertise of Ukrainian production, and those producers who do not meet the requirements will be able to start improving the quality.

Creation of the Customs Union and Common Economic Area means certain changes for CIS markets. But again, these changes are aimed not at creation of obstacles, but are called to show advantages of the integration.

Michael Breitman, Goldman Sachs expert:

- The West is following the "cheese war". If a country has enough political weight to behave like this with Russia, it is difficult to resist the temptation. The matter is not about "bad Moscow". Similar actions and approaches are also used by Europe and US. The EU quite persistently protects its markets from Chinese import, despite the need in Chinese loans to neutralize the financial crisis.

The sides use technical regulations, special investigations and everything else. The US also has its instruments to protect inner market, and Ukraine has repeatedly come across such obstacles for the last 20 years.

The influence of Russia is a fact, and Kyiv cannot compete with it for now, at least without the support of the West, for which the issue of a conflict matters. It's not a secret that for Western circles the huge Russian market is often more important than Ukrainian one, which is significantly smaller. And the question of democracy and freedom is a separate matter, sometimes not a prior one.

But it does not mean that the one should bend low before Moscow. If a weaker side has well-thought-out position it can effectively challenge a stronger rival. For example, Russian will soon join the WTO and will have to take into account the norms and interests of this structure. The question is whether Kyiv is capable to reason its position at the WTO level.

Gary Shilling, international economist:

- Among other things, it looks like Russia is simply dissatisfied with Kyiv position to follow European standards of food quality. Such unification brings Ukraine closer to Europe, and of course it bothers Russia. Even we noted the burst of Kremlin's activity to involve Ukraine into the Common Economic Area against its integration into the European Union and Association Agreement.

No doubts that business cooperation with Russia will bring benefits for Ukrainian economy. But I would name such benefits extensive (certain growth of import and gas price reduction), while the benefits from rapprochement with the EU are intensive - bringing Ukrainian economy in line with EU standards of business and quality. And this is a new level, directed to the future.

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