* Russia halts imports of most Polish fruit and vegetables
* It says it acted over food safety concerns
* Poland says ban is retaliation for EU sanctions on Russia
(Adds Polish official reaction)
By Polina Devitt and Wiktor Szary
MOSCOW/WARSAW, July 30 Russia announced a ban on
most fruit and vegetable imports from Poland on Wednesday and
said it could extend it to the entire EU, a move Warsaw called
Kremlin retaliation for new Western sanctions over Ukraine
imposed on Russia a day earlier.
Moscow, which buys more than 2 billion euros worth of EU
fruit and vegetables a year making it by far the biggest export
market for the produce, said the ban was for sanitary reasons
and denied a link to the sanctions.
Moscow has frequently been accused in the past of using food
safety inspections to restrict trade from countries with which
it has political disputes. The EU said it was studying the
announcement, describing it as a surprise.
"The embargo amounts to political repression in response to
the sanctions imposed by the European Union against Russia,"
Poland's agriculture ministry said in a statement.
The ban came a day after the European Union and United
States imposed their first sanctions aimed at hitting broad
sectors of the Russian economy, restricting sales of equipment
for the oil and defence industries and limiting access by
state-controlled banks to Western capital markets.
Moscow denies Western accusations that it has armed and
supported rebels who are fighting Ukrainian forces in eastern
Ukraine. Russian officials have condemned Tuesday's sanctions.
Pressure for sanctions in the West increased dramatically
after July 17, when a Malaysian airliner was shot down over
rebel held territory with what Washington and Brussels believe
was a surface-to-air missile acquired from Russia.
According to European Commission figures, the EU sold Russia
1.2 billion euros worth of fruit and 886 million euros worth of
vegetables in 2011, accounting for 28 percent of the bloc's
exports of fruit and 21.5 percent of its vegetables. For some EU
countries, including Poland, the percentages are even higher.
Poland is the largest exporter of apples in the world. In
2013 it exported apples worth 438 million euro ($587 million),
of which 56 percent went to Russia, according to Poland's
Ministry of Agriculture.
"I'm expecting the Polish apple producers to suffer," Witold
Boguta, representing Poland's Association of Fruit and Vegetable
Producers, told Reuters.
By first targeting Poland, which was part of the Soviet bloc
until just over two decades ago, Moscow is striking at one of
the EU's most strident supporters of increased sanctions against
Russia for its backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Russia's Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance Service
(VPSS) will restrict most fruit and vegetable imports from
Poland starting from Aug. 1, due to "the violation of
certification and the identification of quarantine products",
spokesman Alexei Alekseenko said.
He said the move was part of a VPSS plan to consider
restricting all or some fruit imports from the entire EU,
announced with little fanfare on Monday while European countries
were debating the latest sanctions. The VPSS said at the time it
would decide the fate of overall EU imports in a week or two.
"Our restrictions are not linked with EU sanctions, because
this situation (with Polish imports) has been developing for a
long time," Alekseenko said. "We impose these limits not to try
to get something from the Polish side, but to have our rights
observed as a WTO (World Trade Organization) member."
A spokesman for the EU's executive European Commission said
it was studying the new restrictions.
"Let me be very clear that they came unannounced by the
Russian authorities - they were not announced beforehand - so
what the commission will do now is to analyse the measures and
the grounds they have been taken, and we will take action in due
course," the Commission spokesman said in Brussels.
Tomasz Solis, deputy head of the Polish Fruitgrowers
Association, told Reuters the Russian decision was "politically
"The political situation in Ukraine would sooner or later
have affected our relations with Russia," he said. "Russia is
one of our prime target markets, with 60 or perhaps even 70
percent of our exports going there."
(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe in Warsaw and Julia
Fioretti in Brussels; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Peter