Dairy dispute sours Belarus-Russia relations

MINSK • A spat between Russia and Belarus seems to have spilt over into the dairy sector, as Moscow has whipped up a conflict that is pushing its neighbour to export its products to China.

Dairy producers in the former Soviet Belarus accuse Russian food hygiene officials of deliberately sabotaging them by issuing multiple bans against various dairy plants and abattoirs.

While Moscow insists these measures are all about hygiene, they resemble the commercial embargoes the Kremlin has applied to other countries whenever political relations break down.

Russia and Belarus are close allies and trading partners but ties have become strained as veteran strongman Alexander Lukashenko, increasingly wary of Moscow since its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, has fought over border controls and energy prices.

The stakes are very high for landlocked Belarus with its closed economy and extreme dependence on Russia: Last year, 95 per cent of its food exports worth US$3.7 billion (S$5.1 billion) went to Russia.

The dairy sector is particularly important because Belarus has a large number of such producers and they have a high reputation for quality in Russia, which does not produce enough milk for its own consumers.

Russian agricultural officials accuse Minsk of taking advantage of Russia's embargo of European food imports imposed in revenge for European Union sanctions by sending it products of inferior quality.

But for Minsk there is no doubt that "certain structures have an obvious interest in using their influence to keep out Belarusian producers" from the Russian market, said Belarusian Agriculture Minister Leonid Zayats in an interview with ONT state television.

The restrictions on Belarusian enterprises have fluctuated for months - being introduced, then softened or toughened up.

They take all forms - from outright bans to increased monitoring. At the end of May, they affected almost 100 dairy plants and abattoirs.

Searching for new markets, agriculture professionals met at a conference in mid-May organised to help them sell to Chinese consumers who are increasingly hungry for dairy products.

"Russia has closed its market to us. I've come in order to start exporting to China," Mr Alexander Mikhailovsky, director of Lepelsky dairy plant, told AFP.

Mr Alexander Subbotin, the country's chief veterinary inspector, said around 30 dairy producers had already been authorised to sell to China.

And certification is under way for future exports of beef.

He said dairy exports to China in the first quarter of this year were worth US$1.3 million, more than in the whole of 2015.

"We are going to sell our products to consumers who need them," Agriculture Minister Zayats told state news agency Belta recently.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2017, with the headline 'Dairy dispute sours Belarus-Russia relations'. Print Edition | Subscribe