Russians stock up as western food import ban comes into force

State presents counter-sanctions as a boost to domestic producers

A customer inspects a French Camembert cheese in  a Moscow supermarket. In spite of the hardship it entails, most Russians are in favour of the ban. Photograph: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

A customer inspects a French Camembert cheese in a Moscow supermarket. In spite of the hardship it entails, most Russians are in favour of the ban. Photograph: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Mon, Aug 11, 2014, 01:00

On Friday afternoon as Russian gourmets hurried to buy goodies for the weekend, a mournful looking woman was standing transfixed at the cheese counter in a luxury Moscow store as if paying her last respects to a beloved friend.

“How are we going to live without all this,” she said gazing at the tempting display of Italian mozzarella, French Roquefort, British Stilton and cheddar. “It has become a segment of our lives.”

It’s not only Moscow’s wealthy foodies who will have to make sacrifices as Vladimir Putin strikes back at the West for imposing tough sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. A decree issued by Russia’s president last week slapped sweeping restrictions on food and agricultural products imports from the European Union’s 28 states as well as the US, Australia, Canada and Norway. Together these countries supply Russia with an estimated $12.1 billion worth of food a year, including many basic products.

Most Russians remember the empty shop shelves of the Soviet era and the even worse deprivations of the 1990s. As Putin’s decree came into force late last week, people were preparing for the worst.

Cheese, chicken

Listeners who joined Echo Moskvy radio’s morning call-in on Friday said they were stockpiling, among other products, Italian Parmesan, French frozen chicken and US tinned sweetcorn (“it’s good for the digestive tract”).

One pensioner had invested in a mound of Russian-made curd cheese just in case there were mass food shortages.

Government officials have presented the ban as a positive thing that will stimulate the revival of domestic agriculture and wean consumers off cholesterol-laden western foodstuffs that threaten to turn Russia into a nation of fatties.

Russia is one of the world’s top grain exporters so putting bread on the nation’s tables is not a problem. Livestock farmers, who already cover some three quarters of Russian pork and chicken demand, are gladdened by the prospect of less foreign competition.

Russia’s food ban includes most fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry, and fish as well as milk and dairy produce. It could have been worse, say Moscow restaurateurs. Western wine and pasta is still allowed and there are no restrictions on baby food.

European diplomats in Moscow are hoping the authorities , instead of imposing a total ban, will agree to curb the volume of certain food imports on a case by case basis.

However, it’s thought unlikely the Kremlin will show mercy to countries such as Poland and the Baltic republics that – under Moscow’s thumb until the fall of the Soviet Union – have been among the staunchest advocates of anti Russia sanctions. The US, seen by Putin as the arch aggressor, might as well give up on the Russian food market altogether.

Agricultural experts said Russia could turn to Turkey and China for fresh fruit and vegetables and to Latin America for meat and butter as the hunt gets under way for non-western suppliers.

“It’s not about starvation at all,” said Dmitry Rylko, the general director of the Institute for Agricultural Market Studies, a Moscow-based consultancy. “It’s going to be more a question about the quality and price of food supplies than the quantity available.”

Even if Russians don’t go hungry, the ban will hit them in the pocket. Food prices will certainly go up, adding to economic hardship as the country teeters on the brink of recession.

Popular move

Yet the majority of Russia’s long suffering population believe their country does well to retaliate against the West with counter-sanctions, according to a survey last week by the Levada Centre, an independent, Moscow-based pollster.

It was politically risky for the Kremlin to ban food imports, but “not reckless”, said Maria Lipman, an independent political analyst in Moscow.

“The general mood here is that we are a besieged fortress and the West is out to get us. Putin is our protector and he’s doing the right thing.”

Russian liberals not yet cowed into silence by the Kremlin’s ongoing crackdown on dissent, said the food ban was a repressive measure and another nail in the coffin for personal freedom.

“They don’t want to deprive us of food; they want to deprive us of choice,” Lev Rubinstein, the Russian poet and publicist, blogged on Echo Moskvy’s website. “This is not an attack on our stomachs; it’s an attack on our freedom to choose [what we want to eat].”

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