Critics say it’s a tactic commonly applied by Russia to discipline its backyard. Russia insists politics has nothing to do with it.
But as protests over Russian influence continue to rock Georgia, Moscow is hinting at a form of punishment its former Soviet dependencies know all too well: a ban on their most popular staples.
Russia’s consumer protection agency announced on June 24 that Georgian wine exports to Russia, which by some estimates reached 50 million bottles in 2018, have markedly deteriorated. Promising to step up quality control, it revealed that batches from eight Georgian wine producers had already been stopped at customs.
Over 200,000 liters of wine imported in 2018 fell below “necessary standards,” the agency said, noting also a threefold increase in the ratio of subpar wines since 2014. It gave no indication that growing political tensions had played a role in the decision to increase scrutiny.
Neither did Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who was asked to chime in on the issue the same day.
“There’s no political conflict here,” he said of the extra checks on Georgian wine, which coincide with ongoing nightly protests in Tbilisi fueled by outrage over Russian influence. “These are preventive measures to ensure the safety of our citizens.”
But elsewhere, Russia dispelled doubts about the political undertone. In his flagship evening news show on June 23, state TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov denounced the protests that stemmed from a visiting Russian lawmaker occupying the speaker’s seat in the Georgian parliament, and questioned the value of importing Georgian wine and Borjomi, its popular mineral water.
“If Georgia gives such an unfriendly welcome to Russian lawmakers taking part in an international organization, then it’s worth asking: Why do we in Russia need Borjomi? And why do we need Georgian wine?” Kiselyov said.
The consumer protection agency’s announcement came the following morning.
The Georgian capital has seen five straight nights of demonstrations sparked by images of Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Gavrilov chairing a session of an international assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries on June 20.
Violent clashes erupted on the streets of Tbilisi amid anger over perceptions that Moscow is expanding its influence in the former Soviet state. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 21 signed a decree banning Russian airlines from flying to Georgia that goes into force July 8. The protests have since expanded to include demands that protesters arrested during the initial rally be released, Georgia’s interior minister dismissed, and law-enforcement officers who used force be punished.