MOSCOW, October 22 (RIA Novosti) – A top Russian official may have spoken too soon Tuesday when she said that Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief health official who is known for his controversial import bans and colorful medical advice, would soon step down when his term expires.
Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets told journalists that Onishchenko would be replaced as head of Russia’s health inspections agency by his current deputy, Anna Popova, whom she called a “qualified doctor and a good specialist.”
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s press secretary, however, quickly refuted the announcement, saying that though the head doctor’s term of office is indeed due to end soon, the decision on whether or not he will be reappointed has not yet been made.
“The order for Onishchenko’s retirement hasn’t been signed. There is no such document,” Natalya Timakova said.
Medvedev himself will be responsible for deciding whether Onishchenko will leave his post as head of Russia’s Federal Consumer Rights Service, she added.
Russian officials reacted to the announcement of Onishchenko’s departure with surprise and dismay, with Vladimir Zhirinovsky – the flamboyant leader of Russia’s nationalist LDPR party – declaring that “there has never been a better sanitation doctor in the history of Russia.”
Onishchenko, who celebrated his 63rd birthday on Monday, is notorious for imposing selective food import bans that have serious consequences for the economies of Russia's ex-Soviet neighbors that they usually target.
These bans usually occur against the background of political tension between Russia and the affected country, and are routinely condemned as a Kremlin bullying tactic.
Since being appointed head of Russia’s federal health inspection agency when it was founded in 2004, Onishchenko has initiated bans on Georgian wine, Belarusian and Lithuanian dairy products, Ukrainian chocolate, Tajik dried fruit and nuts (he later called for a temporary ban on Tajik migrants themselves) and European vegetables.
On a lighter note, Onishchenko is also famous for bombarding Russians with memorable health tips.
He once blamed alcohol-related car crashes on kefir, a popular fermented milk drink, warning Russians not to drink kefir and drive. And during a summer heat wave, he advised Muscovites to go to work early in order to escape the worst of the heat, saying he himself went to work at 2:45 a.m.
During an eventful career in public health, Onishchenko has worked as a deputy health minister, was involved in dealing with the immediate aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and was reportedly kidnapped in 1995 by rebels during fighting in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya.
Updates with new background