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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Annal of Russian Hypocrisy: Trade Sanctions against Estonia

When the issue is Iran or any nation Russia likes, trade sanctions are off the table, as are sanctions of any kind. Oh no, Russia screams, that's uncivilized. We must discuss and negotiate. But as soon as the topic is any nation Russia doesn't like those "principles" go right out the window. Then Russia resorts to sanctions at the drop of a hat. EU Business reports:

Although Russia denies it has slapped sanctions on Estonia after last month's row over a Soviet war memorial, trade between the two neighbours has fallen sharply and the small Baltic EU member is beginning to feel the pinch. Freight shipped by rail from Russia through Estonia dropped by half in the first week of May, just days after a furious row erupted between Moscow and Tallinn over the removal of the Bronze Soldier statue. "On some days, the Port of Muuga near Tallinn did not have a single train from Russia. All the branch tracks were empty," said Ago Tiiman, director of the Estonian Association of Port Operators. "Our suppliers in Russia, who have not sent shipments recently, cite repairs on the bridge at the border, repairs to the railway line, and umpteen other reasons," he said. "But these are just excuses. This is really a show of force. Estonia is being used as a testing ground for Russia to experiment with measures it could inflict on the EU."

The removal of the Bronze Soldier statue and riots, in which a Russian national was killed and several hundred mostly Russian people detained, plunged relations between Estonia and Moscow to their lowest level since the Baltic state regained independence 16 years ago. Russia has lashed out not only at Estonia but also at the EU and NATO for backing their member state in the row with Moscow. The week after the row broke over the Bronze Soldier monument, which Estonian officials moved from the centre of Tallinn and placed a few days later in a military cemetery, the Russian railway company announced it had to repair the line that carries freight into Estonia. Last week, state-run Russian Railways announced it was halting a new passenger service linking the western city of Saint Petersburg with the Estonian capital. While Russian Railways cited a shortage of passengers as its reason for halting the service, its Estonian partner, private company Go Rail, said demand for the trains had been "very high both among Estonian and Russian travel firms". Russian authorities have also announced that heavy vehicles will be banned as of May 15 from crossing the bridge that straddles the Narva River separating Estonia and Russia. The reason? The bridge was in a poor state of repair and potentially dangerous, the Russians said.

Estonian Econony Minister Juhan Parts argued that the bridge was Estonian, and the Russian move was unnecessary and illegal. "The bridge belongs to Estonia, and a recent study shows the bridge can be used, although repairs will be needed in the future," he said. "A unilateral decision like this one is just one example of how the Russians are applying hidden sanctions against Estonia -- which are not so hidden, actually." In the first week of May, the volume of Russian oil products shipped to Estonia declined by half, while coal and fertilizer shipments destined mainly for other markets in the EU were halted, according to the Estonian Transit Association. About 1,500 people will have to be sent on unpaid leave in mid-May, it said. The Estonian food industry has also been put on a forced diet. "Quite a few Estonian food companies are hearing all sorts of excuses from Russia about why their products are no longer wanted," said Sirje Potisepp, director of the Estonian Association of Food Processing Industries. "Contracts are not being cancelled but products are simply not being taken." In 2006 one-fourth of Estonian food exports went to Russia. Losing that market would result in large job cuts, Potisepp said.

Pro-Kremlin youth group Young Guard has been asking shopkeepers in Russia's second largest city, Saint Petersburg, to pull Estonian goods from their shelves as part of a campaign against the Baltic state. "Fortunately, not all food stores have joined the campaign," Potisepp said. "We hope the emotional outburst will fade soon." Russia was Estonia's fourth biggest market for exports and second biggest source of imported goods last year. Nearby Finland is Estonia's biggest trading partner

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