A bulldozer crushes illegally imported cheese at a landfill near the village of Podgorodnyaya Prokrovka, Orenburg Region, Aug.7, 2015. Source: Sergei Medvedev/TASS
As Russian bulldozers moved in to destroy 319 tons of illegal Western food imports on Aug. 6 in accordance with a controversial decree on the liquidation of banned foodstuffs, a public outcry was sweeping Russia, with a petition to revoke the presidential decree garnering 250,000 signatures and leading public figures calling on the government to give the food to the needy instead.
The decree, intended to staunch the flow of banned Western produce over Russia’s border with Belarus, was signed by President Vladimir Putin on July 29 but has been harshly criticized in Russian society, with the issue dominating discussion in social media and online since it was passed.
Western foodstuffs have been banned in Russia since 2014 as part of a Russian embargo on Western food imports in retaliation to U.S.-led sanctions over Moscow’s takeover of Crimea and its support for rebel militias in eastern Ukraine. However, shipments have continued to leak into Russia from Belarus, which although it is part of a customs union with Russia, has not introduced an equivalent ban on European foodstuffs. Border checks between the two countries are almost non-existent.
On Aug. 6 a number of seized shipments were destroyed, including 4.5 tons of cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes in the Bryansk Region, 9 tons of cheese in the Belgorod Region and 20 tons of cheese – seized back in October 2014 – in St. Petersburg.
Russian web users posted numerous memes and cartoons on the internet in protest, expressing widespread disgust at the liquidation of the food products. Political caricaturist Sergei Elkin published several pictures about cheese on his Facebook page , while the Twitter hashtag #РоссияЖжет (“Russia burns”), featuring jokes, memes and photos based on the decree, was one of the most popular on the social network.
St. Petersburg-born journalist Valery Panyushkin added fuel to the fire by raising several questions in his column on the current affairs and lifestyle website Snob, wondering how it was possible that both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who were born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) had approved the law.
“When President Putin signed a law about the destruction of contraband food, I was very surprised. Not outraged, but really astonished,” wrote Panyushkin. “A Leningrad citizen? The son of a woman who survived the Siege of Leningrad and the son of a man who was injured on the Nevsky Pyatachok [One of the bloodiest battles in the campaign to break the Siege of Leningrad – RBTH]. The brother of a kid who died in the besieged city? Destroy food? How is that?”
Commenting on the destruction of the food, presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that sometimes this concerns the health of Russian citizens: "… if we think about it, we're dealing with pure contraband without any kind of certification whatsoever. No one will take the responsibility to guarantee that the food, which may even look appetizing, is not dangerous for a person's health."
Minister of Agriculture Alexander Tkachyov, who is essentially the author of the initiative, noted in an interview that the destruction of the food corresponds to international practices.
"If you’ve broken the law, if this is contraband, it must be destroyed. I underline once again that these products are of dubious quality. We cannot take risks and have the products distributed in our stores," he said.
According to Sergei Dankvert, head of Russia’s state agricultural watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor, giving away the banned food will only boost corruption.
"We have already had incidents when we gave caviar to poor children,” he said in an interview with the Gazeta.ru online newspaper. “But the children never received it. Even though everyone said: check if it's secure, give it to the orphanages. Today the global system functions according to the following scenario: If products come with falsified documents, if their origin is unknown, then they must be destroyed.”
According to Rosselkhoznadzor, in the year since the food embargo was imposed, border services have seized dozens of thousands of tons of banned imported products.
"It is camouflaged as various unbanned imported goods," said Dankvert. "Our European colleagues, for example from Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Hamburg, send meat disguised as concrete mixture, various products, chewing gum… that is, in the customs declaration it's written that it is concrete mixture but in reality it’s pork."
Before the presidential decree Rosselkhoznadzor would return all the banned products to the neighboring countries from which they had come. That is, if the products came from Belarus, Latvia or Lithuania, they would be returned there. "Then there was a problem," said Dankvert. "We needed to look for a proprietor who would store the products before they were shipped back."
Now all the products that arrive with forged documents will be burned or buried. Meat may be sent to special factories where it will be processed into fodder for animals.
"Our measures are aimed at blocking the products' access to the market. So that businesses understand that they will have a serious loss," said Dankvert. In his view, such measures will drastically reduce shipments of banned products.
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