MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia may allow around 20 firms from Hungary, Cyprus and Greece to return to its market after it orders the lifting of an embargo on food imports from the European Union, Interfax news agency quoted a senior official as saying on Tuesday.
Russia banned foods from the 28-nation EU last year in response to Western sanctions imposed on it for its role in the Ukraine crisis, shutting out a vast range of goods from French and Irish cheese to Spanish fruit and ham.
But Sergei Dankvert, head of the federal veterinary service, said Moscow could let 15 Hungarian and a handful of Greek and Cypriot producers back into its market, Interfax reported, suggesting that the list could be expanded.
“The inspections are continuing and this number could be increased,” he said.
The Russian ban, which affects some $9 billion worth of food imports from the EU, the United States and some other countries, is due to run out on Aug. 7, a year after it was imposed.
Dankvert did not comment on the timeframe for lifting the ban and made no mention of other EU member states, according to the Interfax report. But he made clear the return of any EU food producers to the Russian market would not be easy or automatic even after the formal lifting of the embargo.
Hungary, Cyprus and Greece, while taking part in the EU sanctions, have tried to maintain good ties with Russia and have avoided criticism of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Interfax quoted Dankvert as saying his service was not currently conducting negotiations with the EU on lifting the wider ban on food imports, adding that Brussels had effectively torpedoed previous bilateral talks with Poland and Lithuania.
But the EU has suggested it might extend its sanctions, saying Russia is not doing enough to help implement a fragile peace deal for eastern Ukraine agreed in February in Belarus.
President Vladimir Putin has said the food import embargo provides an opportunity to boost domestic production. The ban helped spur Russian inflation in the winter months when the rouble plunged, but the currency has since stabilized.
Around 6,000 European firms were exporting food products to Russia before the embargo and they are steadily being supplanted by suppliers from Latin America, Africa and Asia as well as non-EU countries in Europe such as Serbia, Dankvert said.
“In our shops now you can find cheese from Uruguay and Paraguay, dairy products from Chile, and a range of African countries, notably Tunisia and Morocco, have increased their deliveries of oysters,” he said.
Reporting by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mark Trevelyan