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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Watchdog Says Belarus Delegation Incompetent

MTPeople walking into the Best Belarussian Products trade fair on Tuesday.��
The Federal Consumer Protection Service halted nascent talks with Belarus over dairy imports on Tuesday, calling into question the credentials of the Belarussian delegation.

The delegation came to Moscow late Monday to begin a second round of talks to resolve outstanding concerns over Belarussian dairy products and resume imports.

"Due to Belarussian officials' public statements and commentaries from official media channels, we now have reason to doubt the competency of the delegation," Gennady Onishchenko, the watchdog's head, told Vesti-24.

Onishchenko's statement comes a day after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told Russian officials to be careful in their statements to avoid offending the other side. He did not give further information as to when the talks would begin or what caused him to doubt the competency of the delegation. The consumer protection service's spokeswoman declined to comment on Tuesday.

The delegation is headed by Belarussian Deputy Agricultural Minister Mikhail Savelyev and includes representatives of the State Sanitary Service and the Committee for Standardization, along with some company executives. "It has all the necessary credentials" for any talks, said a spokesman at the Belarussian Embassy, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Later Tuesday, Belarus' customs chief Alexander Shpilevsky said the country would tighten regulations on shipments from Russia. He said cargo coming from Russia by truck or railroad would be subject more inspections and other new measures beginning Wednesday.

Russia stopped importing Belarussian dairy products earlier this month, saying they didn't meet guidelines for packaging as laid out in legislation that was passed last December.

Despite Tuesday's delay in the negotiation process, Deputy Agriculture Minister Andrei Slepnev predicted that the issue would be resolved within "a few weeks," Interfax reported.

Critics have lambasted officials on both sides for turning a minor trade issue into a political dispute.

"Discussion has been brought down to the level of a bazaar skirmish and a juvenile settling of scores," said Sergei Mikheyev, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.

Lukashenko especially exacerbated the issue by snubbing Sunday's Collective Security Treaty summit in Moscow, which tied the trade dispute to a security treaty and is causing the Russian side to behave inconsistently, he added.

While officials initially said the issue was purely technical, the stakes could be high if the sides continue bickering.

"If we get so nervous over milk now, think of the problems with gas in the fall," said Tamara Guzenkova of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, referring to gas exports during colder months of the year. "Right now, a lot depends on everyone's ability to calm down," she added.

Onishchenko has been a dominant voice in other trade spats with former Soviet republics and beyond. He has spearheaded bans on Moldovan wine, Polish meat, Abkhaz tangerines and Georgian mineral water, all of which have turned into political feuds.

Onishchenko has clearly grown out of his role of just a sanitary inspector into an "instrument of foreign policy," Mikheyev said.

Behind the scenes of the dairy skirmish, the Russian side is irritated that Lukashenko lost interest in the Belarus-Russia Union while many Russian companies were counting on economic integration to bring them cheap assets, Mikheyev added.

Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov put it more bluntly, accusing the Kremlin of starting a "milk war" in the interests of groups that have "set their sights on tasty tidbits of Belarussian property." In a statement released by the Communist Party late Monday, Zyuganov said he longed for "quality, affordable Belarussian milk" rather than the "counterfeit slop of the criminal market."

Belarussian goods were on display Tuesday at the Best Belarussian Products trade fair, with some conspicuous exceptions. Cheese from Russia's republic of Adygeya took the place of expected dairy products at the trade fair, which was held at the All-Russia Exposition Center

A deputy director of Babushkina Krynka, a producer in Mogilyov, Belarus, told BelTA news agency that their trucks bound for the trade fair were turned around at the border. The company has not been able to export to Russia for three days, she added.

nNext Monday, European Union's External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner is scheduled to visit Belarus in a bid to encourage political reforms needed to end international isolation.

Ferrero-Waldner said the June 22 trip followed an invitation by President Lukashenko. An earlier planned trip in March was postponed after Lukashenko visited Armenia at the last moment, a move that baffled EU officials.