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Russia rejects Moldovan wine amid history dispute

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Tuesday that tens of thousands of bottles of Moldovan wine had been barred from sale, amid a politically charged dispute over the nations’ Soviet-era history.

An employee shows a bottle of sparkling wine in Chisinau, April 13, 2009. Russia said on Tuesday that tens of thousands of bottles of Moldovan wine had been barred from sale, amid a politically charged dispute over the nations' Soviet-era history. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov/Files

Russia’s top consumer protection official Gennady Onishchenko refused to rule out a total ban on Moldovan wine, raising the spectre of a repeat of the embargo Russia imposed in 2006 as the small ex-Soviet nation’s president turned Westward.

Forty shipments of wine from Moldova totaling more than 170,000 bottles have been blocked from the Russan market since June 30, Onishchenko, the head of the state agency Rospotrebnadzor, told Ekho Moskvy radio.

Onishchenko cited quality concerns, saying the wine could be used to “paint fences” but was dangerous to drink because of toxic ingredients.

But Kremlin critics suspected Russia’s real motivation was anger over a recent decree by Moldova’s acting president Mihai Ghimpu proclaiming June 28 “Soviet Occupation Day”.

“Dangerous ingredients appear in products at the precise moment when a political feud begins and disappear the second it edns,” political commentator Matvei Ganapolsky said on Ekho Moskvy.

Russia’s leaders bridle at criticism of the Soviet Union’s conduct around the time of World War Two, which they often portray in the black-and-white terms of the liberation of eastern Europe from the Nazi menace.

The Kremlin-controlled State Duma, Russia’s lower parliamnet house, adopted a declaration last week condoning Ghimpu’s proclamation as an “attempt to distort historical facts.”

Russia’s 2006 bans on wine from traditional suppliers Georgia and Moldova sparked claims that Moscow trying to punish West-leaning leaders in ex-Soviet republics by hitting at their most lucrative exports.

The ban on Georgian wine and mineral water -- imposed as tensions between Russia and Georgia’s avidly pro-Western leader Mikhail Saakashvili rose -- remains in place nearly two years after the countries went to war.

Asked by an interviewer on Ekho Moskvy whether a total ban on Moldovan wine was possible, Onishchenko said “I don’t intend to guess,” but he did not rule it out and added that the quality of the wine barred from Russia was “frightening”.

He warned that the control over the quality of Moldovan wine was slipping after improving when the 2006 ban was lifted, and said the Moldovan government had demonstrated its “complete ineffectiveness”.

Winemaking accounts for about one-fifth of the gross domestic product and 28-30 percent of export revenues in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest nations. About 20 percent of Moldovan wine goes to Russia.

Editing by Ralph Boulton