MOSCOW, August 15 (RIA Novosti) – Large queues of freight cars were forming Thursday at the Russian-Ukrainian border after new checks introduced at Russian customs began to delay the export of Ukrainian goods, the latest twist in a series of long-running politically tinged commercial spats between the two former Soviet nations.
Almost 1,000 freight cars were backed up at the Bryansk-Lgovsky border crossing between Russia and Ukraine on Thursday morning, according to a spokesman for state railroad operator Russian Railways.
The new restrictions prompted anger in Ukraine, where one lawmaker described them as a part of an escalating “trade war.” Ukraine is scheduled to sign key free-trade agreements with the European Union in November, while the Kremlin is pushing for Kiev to commit to a Moscow-led Customs Union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
It was not immediately clear what exactly the new measures involve, but the Federation of Employers of Ukraine, which represents the interests of thousands of companies that together account for some 70 percent of Ukraine’s GDP, said Wednesday that Russian customs had suddenly demanded that all Ukrainian goods be unloaded and inspected at the border.
“We’re talking about a complete halt of Ukrainian exports for a specific period of time, for a week or even a month,” the organization said in a statement on its website, estimating that the changes could cost Ukrainian companies $2.5 billion before the end of this year.
Ukrainian opposition figures immediately accused Russia of using commercial levers to exert political pressure on Kiev and trying to force the country to join the Customs Union, which has been championed by President Vladimir Putin.
The problems at the Russian border were a violation of World Trade Organization rules, part of a spiraling trade war and an attempt to pressure Ukraine into joining the Customs Union, Arseny Yatsyenuk, head of the opposition Rodina faction in the Ukrainian parliament, said Thursday.
And even Ukraine’s Russia-friendly Party of Regions protested against the move. ‘‘One should not speak this way to neighbors, to sovereign states,’’ said Volodymyr Oliynyk, a Party of Regions parliament member, The Associated Press reported. ‘‘Ukraine is being coerced into joining the Customs Union in an uncivilized manner.’’
The Russian government, however, has denied making a decision to increase scrutiny of imports from Ukraine. “The government is very concerned about the situation because it will have an effect on trading and economic ties,” a spokesperson said Thursday. “But it was a decision made by the customs authorities; the government has not made any decisions about regulating imports from Ukraine.”
Officials from Russia’s Customs Service declined to comment on the issue.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has become more integrated with Europe, a trend that threatens Russia’s traditional dominance in the region and has generated a series of economic conflicts with strong political overtones between the two countries, most notably over Russian exports of natural gas to Ukraine.
In a recent twist, Moscow banned imports from Ukrainian candy maker Roshen last month, alleging that the company’s chocolates violated Russian health and safety standards.
Customs issues between Ukraine and Russia would be much easier to smooth out if Ukraine were part of the Customs Union, Leonid Slutsky, head of Russia’s parliamentary committee for relations with former Soviet countries, told Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy on Thursday.
“To sort out problems with the importation of goods into Russia is difficult, but I’m sure they would be resolved if Ukraine were part of the Customs Union,” Slutsky said. “Unfortunately, Ukraine is not a member of the Customs Union.”