Russia suspended imports of dairy products from neighboring Lithuania today. The move comes just a few weeks before the EU, whose rotating presidency Lithuania currently holds, convenes with former Soviet republics in Kiev to sign a number of association agreements that the Kremlin strongly objects to.
Correspondents say the move by Russia's consumer protection agency,Rospotrebnadzor, could hit Lithuanian producers hard and can be seen as yet another effort my Moscow to apply pressure so that Ukraine and five other former Soviet republics do not sign free trade and political association agreements with the EU but with another trading bloc, made up of states that have formed after the USSR break-up of which Russia will be the dominant force.
According to Russian figures, 85 percent of Lithuania's dairy exports go to Russia. The Russian consumer protection agency said inspections of Lithuanian dairy imports had revealed "numerous violations" of quality and sanitary standards in products including cheeses and yoghurt.
"We are seeing a sharp weakening of (Lithuania's) position on protecting the rights and safety of consumers," Rospotrebnadzor chief Gennady Onishchenko said, Interfax news agency reports.
This is the latest escalation in the long-running dispute which has intensified as the end of November, when the summit to sign the agreements will be held, draws closer.
Lithuania, which borders the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and joined the EU in 2004, has had transport trucks held up at Russian customs for up to 20 days at a time in recent weeks, causing heavy losses for its freight industry.
According to Reuters news agency, Onishchenko regularly denies any geopolitical motives, but past bans on products from ex-Soviet republics - such as wine and mineral water from Georgia - have been widely seen as a form of political pressure.
The European Commission replied that it has "complete confidence" in the quality of Lithuanian dairy products and called for discussions with the Russian side.
"The EU has the most stringent system in the world when it comes to food safety," Frederic Vincent, Commission spokesman for health and consumer policy, told journalists.