Russia concerned over Georgia’s presidential election

Before Russia fought a shooting war with Georgia, it fought a trade war with its small neighbor.

First, Russia lifted a 7-year-old ban on Georgian wine – and wine bottles started flowing north this year to Moscow.

Next, Russia re-opened its borders to Georgian mineral water.

Here is Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief sanitary inspector, welcoming Georgian wine:

But, on Friday, trade normalization between Russia and Georgia hit a big “road bump.”

Onishchenko said he would not lift Russia’s embargo on Georgian fruits and vegetables.

He repeated charges that a “secret” U.S.-funded laboratory outside Tbilisi Airport is behind the African swine fever epidemic that is spreading 2,000 kilometers to the north, in European Russia.

Earlier, Georgian officials showed VOA around their new laboratory complex, the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research.

Owned by Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control, the lab tracks polio, measles and other infectious diseases.

Adam Kotorashvili came home to Georgia from the United States to run the lab’s Genome Center.

“This machine is unique for Georgia and the whole region. Before if you wanted to sequence something you had to send sample to the United States or in West Europe somewhere.  And now you don’t need to do that. You can just bring the DNAs here and then we can sequence it,” said Kotorashvili.

General Director Amiran Gamkrelidze rejects the accusations coming from Moscow.

“We have no secrets here. We are not doing anything connected with biological weapons,” said Gamkrelidze.

The director, who studied in Moscow in the 1980s, then invited Russia’s chief sanitary inspector to fly down to Tbilisi and tour the lab.

Indeed, politics – not science – may be behind the trade fight.

Two months from now, Georgians vote for a new president.

Mikheil Saakashvili, who tangled with Moscow for almost a decade, steps down due to term limits.

From Moscow, Chris Weafer analyzes the Kremlin’s strategy:

“The message could not be clearer: if you elect a different president with a more friendly stance to Russia, then these economic problems will disappear. If you elect somebody that maintains this belligerent attitude toward Russia, then economic ties will deteriorate,” said  Weafer.

Meanwhile, out of the spotlight, the same Russian food safety agency that banned Georgian fruits and vegetables back in 2006, quietly sent its inspectors back to Georgia in August.

(Photo: Brian Hoskins/



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.