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Moscow has banned the import of fruits, nuts, and vegetables from Abkhazia, citing the need to prevent the spread of the brown marmorated stink bug, an agricultural pest, to Russia. They later blamed Georgia for spreading the pest, saying it ‘may be a part of biological sabotage’. Georgia has dismissed the claims.
Russia’s Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, Rosselkhoznadzor, announced the ban, which will come into effect from 2 April, on Thursday.
Rosselkhoznadzor claimed that ‘in order to prevent the spread of a dangerous object [the stink bug] to the territory of the Russian Federation and to preserve the export potential of the country’, they had decided to introduce ‘temporary restrictions on imports’.
Crops in Abkhazia, and especially its eastern Gali District — populated almost exclusively by ethnic Georgians — have been devastated by the stink bug. Many farmers abandoned harvesting their hazelnut crops entirely last year.
Russia has banned hand-carried imports of fruits and vegetables from Abkhazia since 12 March, according to JAMnews, but the latest announcement means the ban will include packaged goods as well.
Russia ‘to buy’ stink bugs from Abkhazians
Earlier this week, Russia’s Deputy Agriculture Minister Dzhambulat Khatuov said that Russia was ready to pay Abkhazia ₽1,000 ($17) per kilogramme for stink bugs.
According to him, this was necessary to manufacture anti-stink bug pheromone traps, and to ‘study their genetics’. He promised that pheromone traps will be used against stink bugs in Abkhazia, but added that ‘collecting stink bugs manually is by far the most effective measure of combating the pest’.
Russian business daily Vedomosti reported that last year, stink bugs devastated around 70% of Abkhazia’s hazelnut harvest, and more than 50% of the tangerine harvest, resulting in a fall of more than 50% in tangerine exports.
According to Vedomosti, Abkhazian president Raul Khadzhimba has promised to allocate ₽10 million ($174,000) to fight the pest in 2018, with Georgia and the US promising to contribute an additional $3.5 million.
[Read on OC Media: Georgian aid for Abkhazia’s ravaged farmlands has mysteriously disappeared]
In a 30 March interview with Russian state-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Yuliya Melano from Rosselkhoznadzor speculated that Georgia could be behind the stink bug epidemic, ‘within the framework of biological sabotage’.
‘We do not exclude the possibility that today we are talking about the use of a certain biological weapon’, she said, adding that there are ‘a number of American laboratories functioning in Georgia, and it is unknown what they are doing’.
Georgia’s National Food Agency told OC Media Rosselkhoznadzor’s statement ‘lacked common sense’, adding that the stink bug is causing problems to several countries, including Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Russia, and others.
‘This is well-known to the specialists who study this issue’, they said. According to the agency, Georgian experts are ready to cooperate on the problem with Russian specialists and others.
A ‘misinformation’ campaign
Fact-checking website Myth Detector, which debunks fake news and myths in Georgia’s media, has written that ‘pro-Kremlin publications’, among others, ‘regularly spread misinformation about the Richard Lugar Microbiological Laboratory’, an American funded lab in Tbilisi.
One recent report by a pro-Russian Georgian news site claimed the lab was conducting ‘dangerous laboratory experiments’ on live human subjects. According to Myth Detector, another news outlet claimed without any proof that ‘biological weapons were produced’ in the Lugar lab.
Russia has repeatedly claimed that the lab conducts US-funded research that is ‘extremely dubious and dangerous for the population’.
The facility opened in 2011 and houses several WHO-accredited labs, researching diseases such as Influenza, Polio, and Measles/Rubella. According to Myth Detector, media reports ‘against research activities carried out at the Lugar laboratory are groundless and represent a part of the Russian narrative’.
Georgia’s stink bug problem
The stink bug has become a severe problem for Georgia’s agricultural sector in recent years. The pest first appeared in Samegrelo and Guria in western Georgia in 2015, where it devastated several crops, particularly hazelnuts, leaving largely hazelnut-dependent locals without incomes. It later spread to broader areas of western Georgia, including Imereti and Adjara, and as far as Tbilisi.
According to Nikoloz Meskhi, head of the Department of Plant Protection at the National Food Agency, each insect can consume more than 300 plants in its lifetime, can fly over long distances, and multiplies very quickly, laying up to 250 egg.
The agency has repeatedly advised against the use of chemicals to fight the bug in houses, instead calling on the public to kill the bugs manually.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.