* EU demands lifting of "unjustified" Russian action
* Officials doubt Moscow's commitment to global trade rules
* Europe has few legal options to challenge the ban
By Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS, March 20 A Russian ban on importing livestock from the European Union, which took effect on Tuesday, raises major questions over Moscow's commitment to global trade rules, top EU officials said.
Last month Russia announced a ban on imports of live animals from several EU countries affected by the Schmallenberg virus, which has infected sheep, goats and cattle in eight European countries.
Russia's ban has now been extended to the whole EU and includes imports of live pigs, which are not affected by the virus.
This has led the EU's trade chief Karel De Gucht and health chief John Dalli to demand the immediate lifting of the restrictions by Russia, which is the biggest market for EU live animal exports.
"The European Commission considers that this import ban is not in line with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules," De Gucht and Dalli said in a joint statement on Tuesday.
"Russia is sending a very negative signal to its international trade partners on its seriousness towards the World Trade Organization, given its pending accession to the international trade body," it said.
Russia is due to accede to the WTO later this year, after finally winning admission in December after 18 years of negotiations.
Moscow has estimated that Russian membership of the global trade club could benefit its industries by some $2 billion a year, and said the terms of its accession would be highly favourable for Russian farmers.
THE RUSSIAN WAY
The Schmallenberg virus is named after the German town where it was first discovered in November, and has infected cattle, sheep, and goats in countries including Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium.
The virus causes birth defects in offspring including deformation of the head, neck and limbs, and is thought to have been spread by infected flies or midges. Health officials have said the virus presents a negligible risk to humans.
The Commission said that 15 countries including the United States and Canada have expressed their concern or asked for more information from the EU about the virus, but Russia and Egypt are the only countries that have imposed import restrictions to date.
Moscow's ban follows similar moves it took in response to other recent food safety scares, including a block on all vegetable imports from Europe during last year's deadly e.coli outbreak, which the EU also dismissed as scientifically unjustified.
"It's the Russian way of doing things," a Commission official involved in talks with Russia on the ban told Reuters. "But things will be different once they have joined the WTO, so they only have a few more months of being able to do this."
Russia's health watchdog, Rosselkhoznadzor, also cited insufficient safety checks on live animal exports by some EU countries as a justification for the ban, but rejected EU offers to tighten inspections in return for a lifting of the restrictions, the official said.
Dalli would try to contact Russian Agriculture Minister Yelena Skrynnik by telephone on Tuesday to try to resolve the issue, but the official said there was little sign of an immediate breakthrough.
"At this stage, from a purely legal point of view, there's not much we can do," the official said.
The impact of the ban will be felt most keenly in eastern European and Baltic countries such as Latvia, which sends more than three quarters of its total live pig exports to Russia.
EU exports of live animals to Russia amounted to 188 million euros ($249 million) in 2011, the Commission said, although the ban would only affect 75 million euros' worth of that total as it excludes live animals destined for breeding. ($1 = 0.7552 euros) (Additional reporting by Claire Davenport in Brussels, Polina Devitt in Moscow and Nigel Hunt in London; Editing by Rex Merrifield and Elaine Hardcastle)