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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Australian Government has decided not to exclude President Vladimir Putin from the summit meeting of the G-20 heads of government scheduled for Brisbane in November. The move to withdraw the entry ban, first declared on March 19, is too late to prevent the restoration of Australia’s $200 million beef export trade to Russia. According to importers in Moscow, the orders for that meat are now going to several South American countries. Imports of pork, veal and turkey from the US, banned by Russia for more than a year, have been revived.

In Washington for a meeting of G-20 finance ministers, Australian Treasurer, Joe Hockey, said on April 10: “Of course Russia will be at the table [of the G-20 summit]… it is an economic forum and whilst we obviously will discuss some of the geo-political challenges in the Ukraine, we are not going to allow it to dominate our agenda, which is focused on how we can grow the global economy.” The day before, his subordinate at the Treasury, Paul Sterland, had dismissed speculation on further Australian sanctions against Russia by the G-20, whose rotating chairmanship Australia holds for this year. Also in Washington, Sterland said there would be a discussion of the “full range” of geopolitical risks at the G-20 meeting, but there was no plan for joint action against Russia. “That sort of theme would not be on the agenda for this meeting,” Sterland added.

Russian phyto-sanitary measures against Australian meat products had begun with negotiations last December, followed by limited restrictions in January and February. After foreign minister Bishop’s threat to ban Putin, the full ban on Australian beet was introduced on March 31. The next day Bishop disclaimed there was a connection between what she had said and what had happened to the meat trade. For the full story of the Russian negotiations over the beef growth stimulant, trenbolone, and the recriminations, read this. According to Bishop, “Russia has not indicated that there is any connection between this ban and Australia’s sanctions. Australia recognises Russia’s right to determine its import requirements in a manner consistent with its WTO obligations. We are working with Russian authorities closely on this matter.”

The Australian press has omitted to ask the Russian trade commissioner in Canberra, or the Russian veterinary control agency in Moscow, Rosselkhoznadzor (RSN), to clarify the issues in dispute since last December. Simon Mann, a retired reporter now teaching journalism at an Australian university, defended the omission, saying “the story’s been getting a strong run here since early today. Plenty of coverage.”

Four government ministers briefed the local press as the conflict with Moscow escalated – foreign minister Bishop, trade minister Andrew Robb (image below left), finance minister Hockey, and Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce (below right). Robb was to have negotiated on the food security issue in Moscow on March 11. His visit was cancelled on March 3 “as a protest at Russia’s incursion into Ukraine on the weekend”.

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The Russian Ambassador to Australia, Vladimir Morozov, then warned that Robb’s visit had been planned to “canvas market access to Russia for Australian exporters and the removal of existing obstacles”. Morozov added that “in no way should politics harm trade ­relations. Any restrictive measures of the Australian government will inevitably have a boomerang effect on Australian exporters.”

The foreign minister’s attack on Putin followed, and the total ban on Australian beef exports was introduced. While Joyce’s agriculture ministry was denying there was a connexion, the minister denied hormones were used in the production of premium beef: “I am highly dubious about the claim … it just didn’t ring true.” Joyce went on to explain: “The peculiarities and fractious environment that comes through the Crimean crisis, I expect that unfortunately trade gets tied up in … diplomatic issues. I’d prefer it wasn’t but in this case it has.”

broadFarm constituency politicians in Australia have publicly acknowledged that growth hormones are used in those areas of the country where arid conditions limit the availability of rainfed pasture for cattle to graze. According to Andrew Broad (right), a farm party MP from the southern state of Victoria, “the customer [Russia] is always right. If they want HGP-[hormone growth promotant] free meat, we have enough cattle in Australia that is HGP-free meat we can provide that market place. If that is what they want, we can provide it. We should be able to get on with the [trade] rather than putting on a ban on Australian cattle.”

Bishop’s threat against Putin was condemned by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who said Australia was punching above its weight. “The G-20 was not established by Australia, which voiced the proposal not to invite Russia to the meeting. We created the format all together.” He was commenting after Russia was joined by China, India, Brazil and South Africa in a collective rebuke: “The ministers noted with concern the recent media statement on the forthcoming G-20 summit to be held in Brisbane in November 2014. The custodianship of the G-20 belongs to all member-states equally and no one member-state can unilaterally determine its nature and character.”

In Moscow North American meat traders say they do not expect any change in the Russian position. “Nothing major will happen since I have not heard of anybody championing the Australian cause. You need a Miratorg or a Rubezh or a Pulkovski to affect veterinary decisions like that!” Miratorg of Belgorod is Russia’s largest meat producer; Rubezh of St. Petersburg and Pulkovski, also of St Peteresburg, are leading importers of beef and pork. Miratorg is publicly supporting the ban on Australian meat.

The US meat trade has been monitoring closely Russian action against Australia since last December. Al Almanza, the head of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the US Department of Agriculture, said in February that US exports of turkey and pork, banned last year for traces of the growth stimulant ractopamine, have been certified as safe to resume shipments to Russia. The ractopamine ban on US meat, which commenced more than a year ago, was reported here. A US meat trader said this week in Moscow that the revival of US shipments of veal is “in the works”.

RSN spokesman, Alexei Alexeyenko, confirmed on Friday that import of veal, pork and turkey from the US and Canada is now “allowed for those companies which have given guarantees to produce meat without ractopamine.”

Sergei Yushin, head of the executive committee at the National Meat Association, said the resumption of the meat trade with the US came despite the American political sanctions. “In connection with the use of the feed additive ractopamine on American farms, the import of beef from the United States has been prohibited since the beginning of 2013. In respect of pork American farmers and factories, as well as the counterpart food safety service, did a great job, and recently — in fact, two days after the imposition of sanctions against Russian officials, politicians and some companies – Russia, on the contrary, opened import of American pork with two companies and four cool stores. But as far as we know, talks about beef supply are almost not conducted. That’s to say, apparently our American colleagues cannot or do not see the feasibility of building a system that would guarantee the production and supply of beef to Russia, in which feed additives or hormones are not used.”

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