(Adds details, quotes, context)
MOSCOW, April 19 (Reuters) - Russia does not intend to open up its market for tomatoes to Turkish growers, despite losing up to $1.5 billion from a trade dispute with Ankara, Russian Agriculture Minister Alexander Tkachev said on Wednesday.
Turkey has effectively put purchases of wheat, maize (corn) and sunflower from Russia on hold by imposing high import tariffs last month.
Russian market players believe the move was in retaliation for Moscow’s decision not to restore a visa-free regime with Ankara and resume purchases of tomatoes after the two countries improved ties last year, having fallen out over the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet in 2015.
“We do not plan to open the tomato market, (we) will support, above all, the domestic producers,” Tkachev said in an interview with Rossiya 24 TV on Wednesday.
Russia has been actively supporting domestic production of vegetables and tomatoes since it banned most Western food imports in 2014 in retaliation for Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over its involvement in Ukraine’s internal conflict.
“This is essential to us. The development of vegetable production has been our prestige in the recent years,” Tkachev said, adding that Moscow would get rid of the sector deficit in up to five years.
Russia was one of the key markets for Turkish tomatoes and bought several hundred million dollars worth each year.
That compares with between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion which Moscow, according to Tkachev’s estimate, is losing from the effective suspension of agricultural exports to Turkey.
Ankara’s restrictions on grain imports from Russia were “a stab in the back”, the minister added. Turkey was the largest buyer of Russian wheat after Egypt and the top buyer of its sunflower oil.
Tkachev also said he hoped that Russia and Turkey would find a way to restore their trade relations following a meeting of Russian and Turkish officials in Moscow on Tuesday.
The meeting did not bring any deal and indicated that no quick resolution could be expected as the sides reached “a common understanding” that further work was needed to resolve differences over trade, and agreed to hold consultations over the next two weeks. (Reporting by Jack Stubbs and Polina Devitt; Editing by Greg Mahlich)