Russia: Will the Customs Union Partners Cooperate?

Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia's Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection, asked Belarus and Kazakhstan on July 30 to not allow wine and mineral water imports from Moldova and Georgia into Russia.
Stratfor Global Intelligence, 31 July 2010, 16:11

Onishchenko said this request did not mean that Russia is "imposing its will" on Belarus and Kazakhstan to restrict their rights to use these products, but that Moscow has "exercised its right" as a member of the customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan to "demand that they take exhaustive measures so as not to allow these products into Russian territory."

Although Russia's demands are focused on these specific goods, this is significant because wine exports are a substantial part of the Moldovan and Georgian economies. Wine and water exports made up 4.8 percent of Georgia's total exports in 2009, and water and wine exports to the customs union countries made up 2 percent of total exports in 2009. Moldova exports an insignificant amount of water, but wine makes up 10 percent of total exports, and 80 percent of those wine exports go to Russia.

On a more strategic level, this is the first time Russia has attempted to use the customs union as a political weapon against non-member countries. This move could set a precedent for Russia targeting other countries - particularly those in the former Soviet sphere that rely on Russia as their export market - to achieve its strategic goals with the help of its customs union partners.

But Belarus and Kazakhstan's cooperation is not guaranteed. It is key to watch how both countries - especially Belarus - will respond to Russia's request. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko not only has had very public disputes with Russia over natural gas and the customs union relationship recently, he has also met with Russia's arch-nemesis in the region, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, and could be meeting soon with Moldovan acting President Mihai Ghimpu, who has also publicly spoken against Russia on the Transdniestria issue.

Russia's call for Belarus and Kazakhstan to help it enforce the wine and water embargo, therefore, will serve as a key test of the strength of the customs union relationship, and relations in general between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. That this request comes so quickly after Lukashenko's obstinacy toward Russia reached a new peak could indicate that Moscow is testing the Belarusian leader.