EU warns Russia over trade 'threats' to ex-Soviet bloc

Winery in Milestii Mici, Moldova - file pic Milestii Mici, Moldova: Wine is a major export for the struggling ex-Soviet state

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The European Commission has warned Russia that it is "unacceptable" to use threats against ex-Soviet states which are seeking closer ties with the EU.

The warning from EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele came after Russia banned imports of Moldovan wine and spirits, citing quality concerns.

Mr Fuele said the EU had no such issues with Moldova's alcoholic drinks.

Moldova called the Russian move unfair, echoing similar concerns in Ukraine and Armenia about Russian pressure.

Russia is offering former Soviet republics a customs union - a partnership that Belarus and Kazakhstan have already joined.

The Commission - the EU's executive - is preparing to clinch association agreements with Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine in November. Such agreements are seen as key milestones towards eventual EU membership.

Ukraine, ruled by Moscow for centuries until 1991, is expected to sign a deal including a free trade pact. The other two will not go as far at this stage.

Last week Armenia's President Serge Sarkisian said his country was interested in joining the Russian-led customs union. The Commission responded with concern, saying Armenia could not operate two different sets of trade rules.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to establish a future "Eurasian Union" - a trade bloc similar to the EU, but without the commitments to democratic values and open competition which are fundamental to EU membership.

Plea to Russia

In a speech to the European Parliament, Mr Fuele said "the development of the Eurasian Economic Union project must respect our partners' sovereign decisions".

"Any threats from Russia linked to the possible signing of agreements with the European Union are unacceptable. This applies to all forms of pressure, including: the possible misuse of energy pricing; artificial trade obstacles such as import bans of dubious WTO [World Trade Organisation] compatibility and cumbersome customs procedures; military co-operation and security guarantees: and the instrumentalisation of protracted conflicts.

"This is not how international relations should function on our continent in the 21st Century. Such actions clearly breach the principles to which all European states have subscribed."

Mr Fuele also said the EU's association agreements "are not conceived at Russia's expense". Rather, Russia would "benefit greatly" from closer European integration, he stressed.

Moldova's President Nicolae Timofti called the Russian import ban on its alcoholic drinks "unfriendly and un-Christian".

Romania - an EU member - has told neighbouring Moldova that it will increase imports of Moldovan wine.

Mr Fuele said the Commission was also considering "how to further increase the wine quota for Moldovan exports to the EU", and would provide technical help for Moldova to boost its exports in other sectors such as poultry.

Moldova is one of Europe's poorest countries, not helped by the unresolved Trans-Dniester conflict, which left a big strip of its land in the hands of pro-Moscow separatists.

Ukraine's strategic importance for Russia historically far outweighs that of Armenia or Moldova, and Ukraine's heavy reliance on Russian gas has given Moscow considerable leverage.

Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom has previously cut supplies to Ukraine in the winter, complaining of overdue bills. Ukrainian politicians have condemned what they see as political pressure from Moscow.

Ukraine says it is reforming its laws to comply with EU requirements - but EU concerns about human rights remain a big obstacle. The EU has urged Ukraine to release opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko from jail, after a trial which was widely seen as politically motivated.

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