Inspections of ships carrying Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea have resumed under a UN-brokered agreement, but Kiev is fighting to secure an extension of the deal and faces a widening import ban from Eastern Europe.
Bulgaria on Wednesday became the fourth EU member state in the region to block imports of Ukrainian grain, hoping to protect local farmers after an influx of cheap supplies since Russia invaded Ukraine last February.
But Kiev was relieved that major trading partner Romania did not ban imports, even as it tightened controls on the transit of Ukrainian grain.
Kiev and its allies have blamed Moscow, which in turn has blamed Ukraine and the United Nations, for the latest halt to ship inspections in the Bosphorus this week.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov wrote on Facebook: “Ship inspections are resuming, although RF [Russian Federation’s] trying to break the agreement”.
The Istanbul Joint Coordination Center, which is overseeing the operation, said “checks are already underway”.
The Black Sea Food Initiative, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey last July, lifted the blockade of three Ukrainian Black Sea ports five months after the Russian invasion.
The deal is aimed at easing the global food crisis and supporting Ukraine, whose economy relies heavily on agricultural exports.
Russia said it had only committed to implementing the initiative by May 18, and complained that a separate deal aimed at easing its exports of agricultural products and fertilizers – which does not include Western sanctions on Moscow – was not supported .
Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solsky told reporters that negotiations were underway to extend the agreement for next month. However, Solsky made it clear that a breakthrough is not expected immediately, saying, “Let’s give them time.”
He gave no details of the talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will discuss the food export deal with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New York next week.
Kiev has also been trying to secure an agreement among several countries to lift recently announced import restrictions on Ukrainian grain and food products.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sent a letter to the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria with a set of recommendations she said “responses specifically to the concerns of front-line member states and stakeholders.” , including farmers, and will allow us to respond more quickly in the future.”
The letter acknowledged the problems farmers had after the European Union lifted tariffs on Ukrainian grain to ease exports, when Russia’s war in Ukraine hampered shipments via traditional routes. The easing of tariffs led to an unexpected surge in exports, which in turn lowered prices and cut farmers’ incomes.
The European Commission’s proposal, to be developed further at talks later on Wednesday, builds on an initial 56.3 million euro ($61.7 million) support package for the worst-affected farmers in front-line countries, with the possibility of a second plan. A package of 100 million euros ($109.3 million).
The EU is also preparing more technical measures to prevent farmers’ concerns from turning into a geopolitical issue that would make the bloc appear weak and divided as Russia continues to occupy large swaths of neighboring Ukraine.
Bulgaria on Wednesday became the latest European country to temporarily ban imports of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products, excluding transit shipments to other countries.
Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have adopted similar bans, but Warsaw has gone further than the others and also banned the transit of Ukrainian grain through its territory.
After talks with Kiev, Poland agreed on Tuesday to lift the transit ban and transit of Ukrainian grain will resume at midnight on Thursday, Poland’s official news agency PAP quoted the Polish Development Ministry as saying on Wednesday.
Poland and Romania will now monitor and seal shipments of Ukrainian grain in transit, a measure that will not be enough to satisfy all Ukrainian farmers.
“We don’t know what the process will be like, how it will work, what will work,” Volodymyr Bondaruk, a farmer in western Ukraine, told Reuters.
“This will enable medium and large agricultural holdings to sell their produce, but it will be very difficult for small farmers.”