Russia's food safety czar has again claimed that a U.S.-funded biological research lab is in fact a secret bioweapons facility, and has warned that imports of Georgian food to Russia could be in danger if Georgia does not shut down the facility.
This is of course not the first time that chief sanitary inspector Gennady Onishchenko has made such a claim, issuing a similar threat in July. In between then and now he's been busy warning of the health dangers of other products like Moldovan wine and Lithuanian cheese. But he hasn't forgotten about the biolab -- known formally as the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research -- and the grave threat it poses to Russia. He addressed the issue again on Monday:
"We are pointing out again that we are extremely concerned about the activity of the laboratory that the Georgian authorities are not in control of," Gennady Onishchenko said.
"According to our estimates, the laboratory is an important element of the offensive part of the US military-biological potential," the Head of the Russian Service on Surveillance for Consumer Rights Protection said...
"While studying the situation around endemic disease focuses, involving virus circulation in the Russian Federation and the Caucasus, the lab creates agents that can be used to destabilize the political and economic situation in the country. I specifically mean the hidden use of such agents. And there are examples to prove it."
Unfortunately he didn't give any such examples. (The U.S. and Georgian governments, meanwhile, argue that the center has no military purpose but is designed to research and combat infectious diseases.) Onishchenko also, interestingly, blamed the U.S. for the problem by blocking the creation of an enforcement mechanism for the Biological Weapons Convention, which is in fact something the U.S. has done, but it seems beside the point given the unrelated action Russia threatened to take:
Gennady Onishchenko said that Russia would make the enlargement of the Georgian product range on the Russian market conditional on whether the US bio-laboratory would or would not remain operational in Georgia.
"We believe that the food chain is one of the more important forms of use of such agents. Georgian products access to the Russian market will always be directly tied to the activity of the military base in question in Georgia."
Just this summer Russia reopened its market to Georgian wine for the first time since 2006. But do Onishchenko's threats mean that another ban is in the offing? And more generally, is Russia planning to play hardball again to try to get Georgia to give up its ambitions for greater ties to Europe and the U.S.?