How Badly is Putin’s Food Ban Hurting Russia?

People sit on the terrace of a closed McDonald's restaurant, the first to be opened in the Soviet Union in 1990, in Moscow on August 21, 2014. Russian authorities shuttered four Moscow McDonald's due to alleged sanitary violations on August 20, 2014, including a restaurant that once symbolised reviving Soviet-US ties, as tensions sizzled over Ukraine.  The announcement comes in the wake of Russian bans on US and EU food imports in response to Western sanctions over Moscow's perceived backing for rebels in eastern Ukraine. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

People sit on the terrace of a closed McDonald’s restaurant, the first to be opened in the Soviet Union in 1990, in Moscow on August 21, 2014. Russian authorities shuttered four Moscow McDonald’s due to alleged sanitary violations on August 20, 2014, including a restaurant that once symbolised reviving Soviet-US ties, as tensions sizzled over Ukraine. The announcement comes in the wake of Russian bans on US and EU food imports in response to Western sanctions over Moscow’s perceived backing for rebels in eastern Ukraine. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia’s ongoing food ban, which President Putin put into effect two months ago now, has created a “ripple effect” throughout Europe, affecting everything from Polish apples to Finnish cheese. But perhaps the country hit hardest by the ban is Russia itself, which, according to recent reports, is currently suffering an inflation rate of more than 8% per yer. Food prices in September alone climbed 11.4% on the year, the Moscow Times notes.

According to the Moscow Times, prices rose fastest on meat and fowl, which rose an astounding 16.8% and 14.1% on the year, respectively.

For all the price increases the country has endured, however, Russians seem to be pretty chipper about the situation. “Things [under the ban] will change, but then they’ll return back,” said Alexandra Aksheva, 27, who spoke with NPR. “It’s not better for Russia,” she added, “but it’s temporary.” Meanwhile, old timers like Ivan Alexeyevich seem to have taken a much more patriotic view of the ban. “The West doesn’t have to feed Russia; Russia can grow food for itself.” He says Russians merely have to look at Soviet times to see that the country is capable of sustaining itself. “Everything was Soviet, everyone ate Soviet, Russia didn’t depend on the West – so there’s nothing to worry about.”

The food ban originally affected “all imports of meat, fish, vegetables, milk, and milk products from the U.S., European Union, Canada, Norway, and Australia. It’s been in effect since August 7th and applies to all Western nations that are currently imposing economic sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea,” according to Bloomberg.

At the end of August, however, the country backpedaled somewhat, allowing for the selected importation of products which could help to boost its own agricultural industry, according to the Moscow Times. The government is now allowing for the importation of “hatchlings of salmon and trout as well as seed of potatoes and seed of onion,” as well as “sugar maize hybrid for planting and peas for planting.”

Earlier this summer, when the food ban was first put in place, European farmers took a hit. In August, EU officials set aside $167 million after the measure was first announced, money which used to help subsidize the destruction of excess produce following the ban. “This is a measure aimed at reducing the level of supply so the prices don’t drop to crisis levels,” European Commission spokesperson Roger Waite told CNN. Last year, the EU exported $2.7 million worth of fruits and vegetables to Russia, according to the news source.

Putin, meanwhile, has been championing the ban as a way for Russian farmers to “increase their market share,” and has called for imported food to be replaced with local products, an initiative which may become more difficult as temperatures drop, nights lengthen, and winter begins. Russia’s prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev echoed the sentiment, noting “The aim of our efforts is to increase our agricultural produce and to reduce Russia’s dependence on food imports.”

Small farmers in Russia are optimistic about the ban, and some local food enthusiasts are hoping that if the measure lasts long enough, Russians will begin to explore their national food culture and begin to embrace local products and traditions which have been lost since the Soviet era. As an example, Boris Akimov, who runs a local food cooperative, explains that most Russians, for instance, have no idea what a parsnip is, let alone that it used to be a staple of Russian cooking, “If you ask a Russian what is a pasternak, he will say the famous writer. It is a vegetable, but nobody knows it,” he says, per the New York Times.

Akimov, a former creative director says he is often discouraged by Russians lack of interest in local foodways. “The main thing which the sanctions have already changed in peoples’ minds – in government, in business, and on the streets, they have started to think more about where their food comes from,” he said, in the interview. “If the sanctions give a chance to develop local farmers, to develop sustainable agriculture, it is very good. But I am not sure it will happen,” he added.

Andrey Ovchinnikov, a chicken farmer based 50 miles outside Moscow, shares Akimov’s hopes, but also his doubts. “I cannot say that the government is really paying attention to agriculture yet, but at least they are looking in our general direction,” he told the New York Times.

In the recent weeks and months since the ban, however, Russians have experienced severe price hikes as well as runs on supermarkets, and the ban is particularly hard on restauranteurs and wealthier citizens who regularly buy luxury imported food items like Australian rib-eye steaks. “This is an extremely difficult situation for the restaurant market as about 50 percent of ingredients are imported,” said Elena Mazur, a spokesperson for OAO Rosinter Restaurants Holding, per Bloomberg.

Interestingly, sushi is one delicacy in particular which is likely to suffer; the Japanese cuisine is popular throughout much of Russia, to the extent that even some French and Italian restaurants offer sushi options on their menus. Unfortunately for Russian sushi-lovers, however, the salmon typically used in Russia’s sushi is imported from Norway, one of the nations affected by the food ban.

It’s easy to assume that the food ban is primarily affecting Russia’s cities, but perhaps those hit hardest of all by are those living in Russia’s most rural and remote areas. For residents of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, off the country’s Eastern coast, for instance, the price of chicken legs had risen by 60 percent by the end of August. In nearby Primorsky, meat and fish costs have risen by 25 percent and 40 percent, respectively, according to Jezebel.

Vladimir Miloserdov, an agriculture expert who grew up on a collective farm during the Soviet era, worries about the effect the ban will have on Russia’s poor. “Peasants have always been second-class citizens – during the czarist era, during the Soviet era, and still today,” he told the New York Times earlier this month.

Most experts seem to agree that the food ban is bad for all parties involved; and analysts “have predicted that key sectors of finance, defense, and energy that have been targeted will suffer isolation from the West,” according to The Guardian. “Self-dependence and doing everything on your own soil, that didn’t work even in medieval times,” an independent defense analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer, told The Guardian.

Meanwhile, Russia remains steadfast. Speaking of the U.S. sanctions, Russia’s Foreign Ministry merely commented that, “Such decisions by Washington can do nothing but further aggravate U.S.-Russian relations and create and utterly unfavorable environment in international affairs, where cooperation between our states often plays a decisive role,” per The Guardian.

Another Russian official, Alexei Pushkov, who serves as Chair of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, wrote in a tweet: “Obama won’t go into history as a peacemaker — everyone has already forgotten about his Nobel Peace Prize — but as the U.S. President who started a new cold war.”

The Washington Post notes that Russia’s food ban is particularly detrimental to the country’s “café society,” a term which describes foodies, restauranteurs, and the many frequenters of Russian cafés, a group which Putin has long viewed with suspicion. Indeed, in a second blow to “café culture,” Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev announced a ban on Wifi access in public spaces the day after the food ban was announced. The message, The Post notes, is clear: “You can no longer sit around in your cafés.”

Restauranteurs have thus far had the strongest reactions to the food ban, and worry about how prices and customers will be affected. “We’ll do our best to survive … I can’t imagine how some restaurants and cafés can exist under the circumstances,” said Alexei Paperny, who owns a popular café, the Children of Paradise, in Moscow. Paperny and many other participants of the café society have likened the food ban to “Russian sanctions against Russians,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

Others argue that it’s not just Russia’s café society that will be affected by the ban. “Putin’s aim with these measures is to put pressure on the dollar and try to stimulate domestic producers but it will hurt ordinary people in the meantime and there’s no guarantee it will work,” said Chris Wynne, CEO of Papa John’s pizza chain, who said he may have to halt expansion plans in Russia following the food ban’s announcement.

Historically, too, it has been the poorer classes of Russian society that have suffered most from times of scarcity, Bloomberg notes. The wealthiest citizens, Bloomberg notes, always ate and drank well, thanks to the proliferation of the black market during former Soviet era bans, a market which seems to have re-emerged since the food ban began, according to NPR.

Mikhail Anshakov, the head of the Society of the Protection of Consumer Rights, notes that one of Russia’s biggest challenges is coming, and fast. Winter in Russia effectively means that most of the country freezes solid, and the country’s dairy industry isn’t big enough to sustain the nation through the winter, meaning that milk is likely to go scarce, and soon.

“Russia cannot provide itself with dairy products, fish, vegetables and other types of food,” Anshakov said. “Self-imposed sanctions under these circumstances were madness.”

But despite the ban’s affect on rural areas, many lower and middle-class Russians support the ban, or are indifferent, claiming that it won’t affect them. “I buy Russian cheese and grow vegetables in the garden,” said teacher Olga Safonova in an interview with Bloomberg, and according to the Chicago Tribune, an independent poll conducted by the Levada Center revealed that 76 percent of Russians agree with the government’s plans; granted, the polls was conducted just before the trade sanctions were announced.

Only time will tell how dramatic the food ban’s effect will be on Russians and Europeans alike, though it seems that one thing is certain: Russia is headed stoutly in the direction of isolationism.

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