Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan may restrict imports of Polish apples due to concerns over the quality of food safety checks, a Russian official said, amid increased tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.

Russia’s state veterinary and phytosanitary service (VPSS) denied any political motive for considering import restrictions, but Poland has sharply criticized Moscow’s stance towards neighbouring Ukraine in the past few months.

Trade sources say VPSS decisions are often viewed as a policy tool of the government. Russia blocked imports of Polish meat from 2005 to 2007 citing health concerns, but NATO member Poland claimed the ban was politically motivated.

Poland is the world’s biggest exporter of apples and Russia and Belarus are its top two customers.

“The restrictions will be imposed if measures (to improve) control over compliance with phytosanitary regulations are not taken,” VPSS spokesman Alexei Alekseenko told Reuters.

A decision is likely to be made in two or three weeks and will be effective for Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, whose customs policies are aligned under a three-nation customs union, Alekseenko said.

A spokeswoman for Poland’s agriculture ministry said Moscow had not provided details about where Polish food exports might not meet relevant norms.

“This prevents a swift reaction to any irregularities uncovered and does not allow (the Polish side) to make checks of exporters violating Russian norms,” the spokeswoman said.

Russia’s Alekseenko shrugged off talk of a political motive in the trade dispute: “Our dialogue (over the apples) has been continuing, more or less successfully, since last November.”

Pro-EU Ukrainians began their protests against Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovich last November. He finally fled in February after what Moscow branded as a criminal coup.

Citing the need to protect Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking population, Russia then seized Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and asserted its right to intervene elsewhere in the former Soviet republic, whose pro-Western government it refuses to recognise.

Poland, a member of the European Union and of NATO, has taken an active diplomatic role during the Ukraine crisis and strongly backs the interim government in Kiev.

In the marketing year 2012/13, Poland exported a total of 1.2 million tonnes of apples worth 438 million euros ($606 million). (Reuters)