Russia says 'nyet' to Chobani yogurt for US athletes. Trade politics?

The Russian government is blocking a shipment of 5,000 little cups of Chobani yogurt to the US Olympic team in Sochi, saying that the yogurt lacks the correct paperwork to clear Russian customs.

Mike Groll/AP
Greek yogurt is seen at the Chobani plant in South Edmeston, N.Y. The Russian government is refusing to allow a shipment of Chobani yogurt, bound for US athletes, to enter the nation, in a proverbial cold war that has come to involve New York lawmakers with big stakes in the success of the Greek yogurt.

“Let them have yogurt,” said the US.

Nyet,” said Russia.

The Russian government is blocking a shipment of 5,000 little cups of Chobani yogurt to the US Olympic team in Sochi, saying that the yogurt – the official yogurt brand for the US Olympic delegation – lacks the correct paperwork to clear Russian customs. The United States, though, says that the papers for which Russia is asking are impossible for US officials to obtain.

Since then, things have gotten downright cold.

“At a time when the focus should be on our athletes, this seems to be a bureaucratic issue and we appreciate the support and efforts to do right by our athletes,” read a statement from Chobani.

The yogurt war comes at a time when the two powers are already finding it tough to play nice, ahead of one of the world’s greatest shows of sportsmanship, no less: US officials have been none too pleased about the Russian government's decision to give Edward Snowden temporary asylum, or its case against the punk group Pussy Riot (two of whose members are now in New York on a tour, much to Russian officials' dismay), or its response to international calls to curb anti-gay legislation, cut corruption, and bolster political freedoms.

Now, the latest frostiness is over yogurt – and that’s a battle that New York lawmakers, for whom Chobani yogurt has been a political darling, are determined to win. The company has created jobs for and heaped profits into the state.

The disputed yogurt, in strawberry, blueberry, and peach flavors, is now waiting out the diplomatic spat in temperature-controlled storage at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.

Greek yogurt has become a sweet spot, if an unexpected and even an incongruous one, these past few years in New York’s otherwise somewhat threadbare industrial sector.

Chobani, the bestselling Greek yogurt brand in the US, was founded in 2007 in South Edmeston, N.Y., and turned out to be heraldic of a boom in production of the thick, creamy stuff in New York State. Fage, a major retailer based in Greece, opened its first plant in Johnston, N.Y., in 2008. The town of Batavia, the recipient of a federal grant to bring Greek yogurt production – and lots of jobs – to the municipality, in the past two years got two new plants producing the treat. In total, the dairy industry accounts for more than half of the state’s agricultural profits, according to the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, the state's senior senator and lead policy spokesman for Senate Democrats, is also pushing to boost Greek yogurt sales by adding it to public school lunches. The US Department of Agriculture is weighing the option.

So, it was little surprise on Wednesday that Senator Schumer sent a letter to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Federation's ambassador to Washington, calling for an end to the latest version of a cold war: Let US Olympians eat yogurt and let New York promote its yogurt industry, too.

The US Department of Agriculture is asking that Russia approve a sanitary certificate for a one-time, noncommercial shipment of Greek yogurt to Russia for the consumption of just US citizens, Schumer wrote.

In a separate statement released by his office, Schumer was more blunt: “Unfortunately, this protein-packed, New York-made food has met a serious roadblock in the Russian government, thanks to an unreasonable customs certificate, and they will not allow the yogurt into the country,” he said.

“Chobani yogurt is safe, nutritious and delicious and the Russian Authorities should get past ‘nyet’ and let this prime sponsor of the US Olympic Team deliver their protein-packed food to our athletes,” he added.

He also noted that Chobani yogurt was provided to US athletes during their training and that their bodies have become accustomed to the protein in the food, which is light on sugar. The Olympic opening ceremonies are Friday.

But the senator’s pleas might not be enough to move Russian officials, who have so far indicated that the US – and its little cups of yogurt – will get no goodwill from Russia.

We are a lawful country,” Yevgeniy Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, told The New York Times. “You should follow the rules.”

Indeed, the yogurt war appears to be an attempt by the Russian government to make as plain as a cup of nonfat yogurt the downsides of the US government’s resistance to expanding its trade relationship with Russia, analysts say. 

“This is really the symptom of a broader issue that bilateral trade relations really still haven’t gotten off the ground,” says William Partlett, a fellow at Columbia Law School and an expert in Russian law.

Though Russia has expressed interest in undoing the red tape that ties up US-Russian trade, there has been little to no interest in doing so in the White House or on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers noting Russia’s checkered human rights record and other political dark spots, Mr. Partlett says.

“This is basically Russia making a point and saying, 'Look, this is what happens when you don’t have a trade relationship,' ” he says, adding that Russia has also used trade to make points to its Ukrainian, Georgian, and Moldovan neighbors, among others.

Moreover, the tussle could in part reflect America’s misjudgment of just how stringent Russian officials are about rules: “There seems to be an element of, ‘Who do you think you are that you think you can just send yogurt into our country?” Partlett says.

If US athletes have to go without Chobani yogurt, the absence will join other issues that have awaited US citizens in Sochi this week. 

Over the past few days, Twitter has become flush with reporters’ photos from their subpar hotel rooms in Sochi, most of them trending under the hashtag #SochiProblems: A Chicago Tribune reporter posted one of yellow-brown water running from her faucet; a CNN reporter pictured a shabby room with a downed curtain rod; and reporters from Yahoo Sports mused about their hotel rooms' absent doorknobs and working toilets.

“Yellow water, no shower curtain, small beds, bad hotels & now no ‪@Chobani in Sochi,” tweeted David Briggs, a sports reporter for NBC. “Enough is enough.” 

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