On October 8 -- just weeks before the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit set for late November -- Russia suspended all dairy imports from neighboring Lithuania. Russia's consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzo has cited quality concerns as the motive for the move, but European Commissioner for Trade Karel de Gucht recently said that he has no doubt that the trade restrictions are "politically inspired." The Vilnius Summit is intended to build closer trade ties with the EU's ex-Soviet neighbors and is hoping to cement a broad-ranging trade deal with Ukraine, an outcome Russia has been trying desperately to block.
The dairy industry is one of the most important in the small Baltic nation's agricultural sector, representing 18 percent of total agricultural production and 30 percent of the total sales of the food and beverage industry. The Russian market alone accounts for 85 percent of Lithuanian dairy exports, leaving locals fearful that the trade restrictions will have an immediate effect on domestic prices.
Frederic Vincent, spokesperson for the European Commission for Health & Consumer Policy, expressed full confidence in Lithuanian milk while the country's president, Dalia Grybauskaite, threatened to refer the case to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Russia's Chief Sanitary Inspector Gennady Onishchenko sought to deflect allegations that the move was politically motivated, stating that Russian authorities are open to dialogue with their Lithuanian counterparts, while also condemning Lithuanian and EU officials for their "hysterical" reactions. Many remain convinced, however, that the present case is just another in a long line of aggressive Russian trade restrictions intended to blackmail the country's neighbors.
Officials have not hesitated in the past to seal off Russia's domestic market in what have been labeled as small-scale trade wars with bordering nations, many of whom are highly dependent on their exports. Moscow recently banned chocolate produced by the Ukrainian confectioner Roshen, claiming the products contained high levels of carcinogens. In what many saw as punishment for the pro-Western stance of Georgia's outspoken President Mikheil Saakashvili, Russia banned Georgian wine on the grounds that it was contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides. The ban was only lifted seven years later when businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili came to power pledging to rebuild ties with Russia.
Lithuania assumed the rotating presidency of the European Council in July with ambitions to punch above its weight in Brussels. The small country of three million is the first Baltic state and first former Soviet republic to assume this responsibility. Central to the country's agenda for its six-month stint at the reins of the Council, a body tasked with defining high-level political orientations, is improved economic relations with the EU's post-Soviet Eastern "partners." The Vilnius Summit is to represent the culmination of months of political maneuvering within the EU to drum up support. Hopes are high that Ukraine will sign a free trade deal with the EU and that negotiations will be formally initiated with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova.
Russia, however, does not appreciate what is sees as Europe's meddling in its own back yard. Complicating further Lithuania's drive to build stronger ties with Eastern capitals, Moscow has recently launched its own Eurasian Customs Union. Vladimir Putin has made it clear that a free trade deal with the EU is incompatible with membership in his own trading bloc, turning EU-Russian relations into a zero-sum battle of influence.
The Russian-led bloc has recently secured the membership of the small Caucasian country Armenia, while others, such as Moldova and Georgia, are proving to be rather unwilling candidates. Ukraine, however, is the real prize for Russia and the Kremlin has desperately tried to corral the country into its own customs union. Kiev is not convinced by Russia's offer and the political establishment has reinforced its decision to escape Russia's geopolitical orbit after Putin belligerently launched punitive trade restrictions against the country in August that brought trade between the two neighbors to a halt.
Thanks largely to Lithuanian leadership, the EU has been more active in defending its Eastern neighbors, notably calling out Putin on his trade wars and blackmail. It is Russia, though, that is responsible for the nihilistic turn that relations between the two trade blocs have taken. Europe has a security interest in political stability and economic prosperity on its borders. Membership in the continent's exclusive club, however, is a political decision struggling to find unanimity among wary members. For Putin, however, any warming in relations directly undermines his influence in what he views as Russia's sphere of influence.