Ukraine again looks to the Black Sea as neighbours ban its grain

Farming is a key sector of the Ukrainian economy, accounting for more than eight per cent of GDP in 2022. Its neighbours, fearing a ‘surge’ of cheap grain, are unmoved.

Crossing Bulgaria’s border with Romania can be a trying experience at the best of times. The existence of a hard border between the two countries (a consequence of their continued exclusion from the EU’s border-free Schengen zone) necessitates passport and customs checks which can cause long delays—not least for the thousands of good vehicles which need to cross the border each day.

At the busiest crossing point between the two countries, at Ruse on the Danube, queues were longer than ever on September 18 owing to a protest by Bulgarian farmers, angry that the government in Sofia had lifted a ban on food products from Ukraine, and concerned that the move will cause an influx that drives down prices for local growers.

Hundreds of farmers blockaded access roads leading to the border with tractors, as well as other key highways across the country.

In a statement, Bulgaria’s National Association of Grain Producers said that farmers are facing “unprecedented difficulties” and called for a ban key food products from Ukraine. These include sunflower, wheat, corn and rapeseed, as well as crude oil, meat, fruits and vegetables, milk, honey and dairy products.

In May, acting on the concerns of Ukraine’s neighbours, the EU restricted grain imports from the embattled country to Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia in a move designed to discourage and prevent the five countries from acting unilaterally. As part of the EU restrictions, Ukraine was allowed to export through those countries on condition the produce was sold elsewhere.

The restrictions, however, were lifted on September 15 after Ukraine pledged to take measures to tighten control of exports to neighbouring countries. Its neighbours are unconvinced. Poland, Slovakia and Hungary have already put in place their own restrictions on Ukrainian grain imports.

The issue is highly politicised in both Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), which relies on support in rural areas, faces a parliamentary election on October 15. “We are extending the ban because it is in the interest of the Polish farmer,” said Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on September 15.

Slovakia goes to the polls even sooner, on September 30. There, the populist Smer party of a former prime minister, Robert Fico, who wants to end all support for Ukraine, leads in opinion polls.

Romania—where farmers’ associations have requested the government implement a ban—is expected to follow in the coming days, although the country’s prime minister, Marcel Ciolacu, said on September 18 that he wanted to find a solution that worked for both Romania and Ukraine. He added, however, that he would ensure there was no “surge” in Ukrainian agricultural imports.

Only Bulgaria looks set to allow the import of Ukrainian produce, with its prime minister, Nikolay Denkov, unmoved by the protests, which are likely to continue.

“Farmers cannot treat European requirements with disdain, given that the tractors with which they want to block the entire country were bought with European funds,” he said.

A new deal is needed

For Ukraine, farming is a key sector of the economy, accounting for more than eight per cent of GDP in 2022. Despite Russia’s initial blockade of its Black Sea ports following its invasion of the country in February 2022, it had been able to safely export its grain under a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to ensure safe shipments.

However, Russia withdrew from the deal in July, forcing Kyiv to reroute transport through the Danube River, and road and rail links into Europe.

According to Ukrainian port authorities, two cargo ships arrived at the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk on September 16 after travelling through the Black Sea using a new route, and were due to load 20,000 tonnes of wheat bound for world markets. It was the first time civilian ships had reached a Ukrainian port since the collapse of the deal with Russia.

With Russian threatening to treat civilian vessels as potential military targets however, the route is unlikely to be able to viable for the export of the much larger quantities of grain Ukraine needs to export.

A new deal with Russia, which Turkey is hoping to broker at the UN General Assembly in New York this week, or a new deal with the EU to bypass the unilateral bans of Ukraine’s neighbours, will be needed.

The latter looks unlikely in the immediate future—at least until Slovakia and Poland have held their parliamentary elections.

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