Try as he might, Russia's Dr. Strangelove, otherwise known as food security tsar Dr. Gennadiy Onishchenko, has not yet stopped worrying and learned to love a Georgian tomato. Or a peach. Or a bottle of wine.
Onishchenko, who apparently has a nose like no other for potential alimentary attacks, now has deduced that a US-sponsored biological lab in Georgia supposedly could be used to poison fruit, vegetables and wine bound for Russia.
To hear him describe it, the lab, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar, sounds like a military-guarded facility hemmed with barbed wire, and with a dark storm cloud constantly hovering overhead. It is a “powerful offensive” weapon and “is out of the control of the Georgian authorities,” Onishchenko said in a statement. The presence of such a force in the proximity of the Russian border is “a direct violation of the Biological Weapons Convention,” he asserted.
The upshot: If Georgia wants to keep selling its agricultural produce to Russia, it has to shut down the Lugar Lab.
A recap of Onishchenko’s food phobias is in order here to put things in context. In June, the solemn-faced head of the federal food security agency Rospotrebnadzor accused Georgia of parachuting a task force of infected pigs into southern Russia to spread disease and despair. He also has been wont to say that because of its high mineralization and sour taste, the Georgian mineral water Borjomi, a popular hangover drink, poses a threat to the Russian digestive system. (Particularly, some Georgians might scoff, when coming with an aftertaste of NATO aspirations.)
Finally, this year, after years of an embargo and arduous negotiations, Onishchenko grumpily allowed Georgian wine, water and produce back into Russia. Yet he remains ever vigilant.
Onishchenko’s statements may sound a little peculiar, but he keeps making them and the Russians are listening. Whether for matters more related to questions of foreign policy or of food policy is open to interpretation, however.
In response, Tbilisi, which may have to end up choosing between cooperating with the US and selling agricultural produce to Russia, has issued assurances that the lab is solely for epidemiology and the control of pathogens.
But given that Onishchenko can easily chalk up any Russian indigestion to Georgian causes, don't expect him to accept that statement. The man has many food-related fears. And the Kremlin many concerns about US influence in the South Caucasus. Now, they all seem to be coming together in the Lugar Lab.