Russian government plans for mass destruction of banned Western food imports have provoked outrage in a country where poverty rates are soaring and memories remain of famine during Soviet times.
Even some Kremlin allies are expressing shock at the idea of “food crematoria” while one orthodox priest has denounced the campaign, which officially began on Thursday, as insane and sinful. However, the authorities are determined to press on with destroying illegal imports they consider “a security threat”.
Russian TV showed a small mountain of illegally imported European cheese being bulldozed on Thursday while even before the official start, zealous workers threw boxes of European bacon into an incinerator.
Moscow banned many Western food imports last year in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and other of their allies during the confrontation over Ukraine. But now many Russians say the government has lost sight of the everyday struggles faced by ordinary citizens.
More than 267,000 people have backed an online petition on Change.org, an international website that hosts campaigns, calling on President Vladimir Putin to revoke the decision and hand the food to people in need.
“Sanctions have led to a major growth in food prices on Russian shelves. Russian pensioners, veterans, large families, the disabled and other needy social groups were forced to greatly restrict their diets, right up to starvation,” it says. “If you can just eat these products, why destroy it?”
With annual food price inflation running at over 20 percent, public indignation has been deepened by Russian media reports that the agriculture ministry was tendering to buy “mobile food crematoria” to speed up the destruction. Agriculture minister Alexander Tkachev declined to comment on Wednesday.
Putin’s decree ordering the food to be destroyed entered into force on Thursday. It does not specify methods but says the process should be carried out “by any available means” and videotaped, apparently to prevent corrupt officials from simply helping themselves and holding a feast.
How much food has evaded the embargo is unclear, but considerable quantities appear to have slipped through the net by various routes, including via Belarus.
The ban, currently in place until Aug.5, 2016, covers a wide range of imports including pork, beef, poultry, fish and seafood, milk and dairy products, fruits, vegetables and nuts. It applies to food from the United States, EU, Canada, Australia and Norway.