Moscow's restaurants pay the price for Georgian wine ban

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The Independent Online

Moscow's most famous Georgian restaurant, Genatsvale, has it all: a mountain stream running through its main dining area, waiters dressed in traditional Caucasian garb, and as much skewered meat and cheese-filled bread as you can eat. However, there is one essential ingredient that is missing: Georgia's exotic wines.

Georgia's most famous export product - intoxicating red and white wines with richly evocative names such as Kvanchkara, Kinzmauruli (Stalin's favourite tipple), Saperavi and Mukuzani - have been outlawed in Russia on health grounds.

Russia says it is acting to protect its consumers but Georgia alleges that the embargo is politically motivated and the Kremlin's way of punishing Tbilisi for moving out of its orbit and into Washington's sphere of influence.

Moscow's most senior environmental health officer, Gennady Onishchenko, dismisses such talk as nonsense. He insists that traces of heavy metals and pesticides were discovered in Georgian wine and argues that large quantities of the alcohol are counterfeited.

He has now banned another of Georgia's exports, sparkling salty Borjomi mineral water, after Russian inspectors found what they said was a huge batch of "fake" Borjomi.

The dispute has escalated into a full-blown "wine war" with both sides trading bitter insults.

In Genatsvale they seem embarrassed about the situation. "We don't have any Georgian wine because it's banned," a duty manager said through gritted teeth without the slightest trace of a smile. "You can order European wines, from France and Italy, or New World wines from Australia or Chile, but you can't order Georgian wines."

The restaurateurs refused to be quoted further but Georgia's pro-Western President, Mikhail Saakashvili, has been more forthcoming.

Talking of Russia's "imperial nostalgia" and desire to control its former Soviet vassals, he said: "We regard the recent ban ... and other economic sanctions as an attempt to put pressure on the Georgian administration and force it to abandon the policy of Euro-Atlantic integration."

Georgia has made no secret of its desire to join the EU and Nato, has been critical of President Vladimir Putin's record on democracy and has persuaded Moscow to withdraw all Russian soldiers from its territory.

It has also annoyed the Kremlin by trying to get two disputed autonomous republics on its borders, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to join Georgia, something Moscow is opposed to.

Georgia's Defence Minister, Irakli Okruashvili, has threatened to ban Russian beer and has infuriated many by saying that Russian consumers are so undiscerning that you could "sell them faeces".

The Russian nationalist MP, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, said: "Your minister has given himself away ... If he says that it is possible to sell wine made from excrement in Russia, then it really must be poison and whose fault is that? It's yours alone."

Russia traditionally buys 80 per cent of Georgia's entire export quota, so its embargo has hit the country hard. However, Tbilisi has said it will try to market its wines to the US and Europe.

"We should thank Russia for providing us with great advertising," Mr Saakashvili said. "The whole world has found out that Georgia has wine ... [and] that drinking Georgian wine implies supporting a freedom-loving people."