Russia slams the door on all things Estonian

War monument dispute escalates into boycott

May 21, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- More than a half-dozen types of cheese disappeared from behind deli counters. Small bottles of chili powder, garlic seasoning and lemon pepper - indeed, every spice with the blue Santa Maria label - vanished from supermarket shelves. Old Tallinn liqueur, a sweet staple in a punchy cocktail called the hammer and sickle, suddenly was harder to come by.

The word had come down from on high: Estonian products are no longer welcome in Russia.

The row over the removal of a Soviet-era war monument and the remains of soldiers from a central square in the Estonian capital first prompted a diplomatic war of words, even looting and civil unrest. And then, Russia did what it increasingly tends to do in disputes with nations - including Georgia, Ukraine and Poland - that have fallen out of its favor: It started cleansing itself of things Estonian.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov urged businesses and consumers to shun Estonian goods and sever all ties with enterprises - even cultural ones - across the border. Within days, some of the largest grocery chains in the Russian capital had yanked hundreds of products and stuck signs in their windows saying they wouldn't sell Estonian.

Sergei Ivanov, a first deputy prime minister, added another insult on top of the boycott: Russians should stop vacationing in the Baltic nation, he said. Russian Railways made it easier to abide by his suggestion when, days later, it ended rail service between St. Petersburg and Tallinn for what it called "commercial" reasons, only two months after resuming that very route. "Routine maintenance" on the tracks also disrupted Russian exports of oil and gas through Estonia by nearly a third; Estonian ports likewise have seen a decline in Russian cargo.

"Is it right to earn money together with people who live in a country so enormously disrespectful to Russia?" asked Sergei Yushin, head of Russia's National Meat Association, which appealed to its members to suspend business contacts with Estonian firms and stop the import of Estonian goods.

Common reactions

Boycotts, along with the import ban or other economic sanctions, have become standard Russian reactions - or, some say, over-reactions - during disagreements with its neighbors, many of them former Soviet satellites that have drifted from Russia's influence and edged closer to Western Europe.

In recent years, Russia has banned imports of Georgian wine, spirits, a popular mineral water (used here as a cure for hangovers) and produce; Moldovan wine and tobacco; Polish fresh and frozen meats and plants; Ukrainian meat and dairy products; and Latvian sprats, a type of canned fish. The Georgian wine ban alone, which has been in place since March of last year, is thought to have cost winemakers there some $50 million.

"Every second customer asks us about Georgian wine," said Giorgi Asatiani of Tiflis, a popular Georgian restaurant in Moscow where, against all tradition, eating Georgian food now has to be done without the flowing of Georgia's trademark reds and whites. "Of course this is politics, and people understand it."

The stated reason for the bans is health and sanitary violations - and violations have existed, though the European Union has called the continuation of the Polish meat ban, imposed in 2005, unjustified. But Russia's claims that politics has nothing to do with it seem to be largely transparent spin: The ban on Georgian wines, for instance, was accompanied by the severing of all transportation and trade links - even mail service - with Georgia and the revocation of work and residence permits for Georgians living in Russia. The nation's most popular newspaper circulated a special insert: "Respect Yourself and the Motherland: Don't Drink Georgian Wine!"

Boycotts and bans are used the world over, sometimes to great effect. The colonists in what would become the United States of America boycotted British goods on the eve of the American Revolution, dumping tea into Boston harbor. African-Americans boycotted the public bus system in Montgomery, Ala., during the civil rights struggle. The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow; Russia returned the favor in 1984, refusing to send athletes to the Games that year in Los Angeles.

But Russia has increasingly invoked a new diplomatic mantra on matters ranging from the price of oil to, in the case of Estonia, the placement of a Soviet war memorial: Don't cross us, or else.

In an impromptu snub, Russia boycotted a major economic forum in London last month. It was reported that the Kremlin issued an order for high-ranking politicians and businessmen not to attend, after Russia expressed official outrage at a call by self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who lives in London and whose extradition Russia is seeking, for a "forced regime change" here.

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