Polish Meat Ban Will Be Lifted

The government will lift an import ban on Polish meat next week, bringing to an end a damaging two-year dispute that has prevented Russia from starting talks on a broader cooperation agreement with the European Union.

The announcement came after talks in Moscow between Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev and his Polish counterpart, Marek Sawicki.

Representatives from the veterinary services of Russia and Poland will meet next week in Kaliningrad to sign a definitive agreement, Gordeyev told reporters Wednesday.

"The temporary limitations on the import of meat products from Poland will be lifted," he said.

The agreement will ensure that only high-quality meat will be brought into Russia from Poland and that it will not include meat originating from third countries, Gordeyev said. He said, however, that import restrictions would still be imposed on poultry and eggs from Poland, following a recent outbreak of bird flu in that country.

Citing sanitary grounds, Russia imposed a blanket ban on meat imports from Poland in November 2005. The move, which was widely seen as being politically motivated, provoked the ire of the Polish government and led to the country exercising its right to veto the start of Russian-EU talks for a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

The agreement, which runs out at the end of this year, provides the basic framework for all Russian-EU relations.

During former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski's time in office, from July 2006 until last month, Poland's relations with Russia steadily deteriorated. The situation changed after Kaczynski's conservative Law and Justice Party lost parliamentary elections in late October. Kaczynski was replaced as prime minister by liberal politician Donald Tusk, who leads the pro-European Civic Platform party.

Tusk immediately pledged to make improving ties with Russia a priority.

Two days after Tusk became prime minister, Russia and Poland struck a deal to allow Russian veterinary officials to expect Polish production plants.

The recent Polish-Russian talks were the first such high-level discussions to be held between the two agriculture ministries throughout the period of the ban, a spokeswoman for the Russian Agriculture Ministry said.

The countries' agriculture ministers will meet again in Berlin early next year to assess the results of lifting the ban, the spokeswoman said. The ministers could also discuss lifting a Russian import ban on some plant products at the meeting, an unidentified ministry source said, Reuters reported.

Polish government officials welcomed the announcement as good news for Polish meat producers and appeared to suggest that the veto on talks on the Russia-EU agreement could be lifted.

"This is a real chance for our companies," Polish Economic Minister Waldemar Pawlak said at a news conference in Warsaw, Interfax reported Wednesday.

"We have to show pragmatism and be practical in our relations with our neighbors," he said. He added that the latest moves were a victory for the EU.

A spokeswoman for the Polish government was unavailable for further comment Wednesday.

From January through October, Russia imported just over 2 million tons of meat and poultry at a combined value of almost $3.5 billion, according to figures from the Federal Customs Service.

EU officials welcomed news of the agreement Wednesday, but were hesitant to comment before the European Commission had received official notification of the decision.

"If this is confirmed, then it is clearly very good news," Peter Power, a spokesman for the EU trade commissioner, said by telephone from Brussels.

The decision would have positive implications for the wider EU-Russian relations as well as Russian-Polish relations, Power said.

Russian lawmakers insisted that Poland should reciprocate by quickly lifting its veto of talks on the Russian-EU negotiations.

"After the resolution of the problems with meat imports from Poland, there is no basis for the veto on the start of negotiations," said Vasily Likhachyov, deputy head of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, Interfax reported.

"An optimistic forecast is that a decision will be made before the end of December when a meeting of EU heads of state will take place," Likhachyov said.

European business and political representatives welcomed the announcement and called on Russia and the EU to push on with negotiations for a new partnership agreement.

"On the wider stage of EU-Russian relations, we expect that this move will also provide a much-needed impetus to beginning negotiations on the new strategic partnership agreement," Frank Schauff, chief executive of the Association of European Businesses in Russia, said in a statement.

The agreement currently in place is outdated and does not reflect the realities of contemporary economic ties between Russia and the EU, the AEB statement said.

"This is the immediate stumbling block, which has now been removed," said George Sch?pflin, a European lawmaker from the conservative Hungarian Civic Union, by telephone from Strasbourg.

"It does not mean, however, that all issues of a negative nature between the EU and Russia have been resolved," Sch?pflin said, pointing to outstanding issues over energy security.