An escalating game of chicken between Russia and the United States over terms of trade in poultry and steel is evoking unexpected passions from notoriously apathetic Russians, many of whom say it's about time the Kremlin started defending local business.
A Russian ban on US poultry imports, announced at the weekend, is an act of historical justice, says one farmers' representative. "Our poultry industry was vaporized a decade ago, and never given a chance to revive," says Yury Chernichenko, leader of the Peasants Party of Russia, an association of private farmers.
Mr. Chernichenko says that the US flooded Russia with frozen chicken parts in the form of food aid during the winter of 1991-92, as the USSR was collapsing and famine was widely predicted.
Much bigger and juicier than the stringy Soviet-era fowl Russians were accustomed to, the new arrivals quickly won the nickname of "Bush legs" - a tribute to then-President George Bush Sr.
But market positions won through humanitarian assistance paid commercial dividends later on. Bush legs accounted for more than half the chicken sold in Russia last year, at prices the floundering local producers can't match. A kilo (2.2 pounds) of US frozen chicken typically costs about 45 rubles ($1.50) while the same amount of locally grown fresh poultry is 60 rubles ($2) or more.
"Our American competitors are like an aircraft carrier task force, while we are like a little fleet of row boats," says Mr. Chernichenko. "We need an equalizer."
The looming trade war has provoked some of the toughest exchanges of rhetoric since the cold war ended, and threatens to inflict real economic damage on both sides. Tariffs imposed on steel imports to the US by President George W. Bush last week could cost Russian producers up to $600 million annually, and cripple one of the country's few viable industrial exports.
The embargo on American frozen chicken, if it sticks, will close down an $800-million-a- year business that accounts for almost half of all US poultry exports, and hit hard in major producing states like Mississippi.
US officials say the ban is not justified scientifically and are accusing Moscow of protectionism.
Officials on both sides claim that the issues of steel and chicken are unrelated, but few here are buying that.
"Bush is acting to protect US steel producers, but it's contrary to the principles he preaches to the world and it directly hurts Russia," says Ruslan Grinberg, deputy director of the independent Institute for International Economic and Political Studies in Moscow. "Obviously we can't put up with that. There must be a Russian response."
The Ministry of Agriculture in Moscow says US chicken sales have been halted for health reasons, citing alleged high levels of antibiotics, growth hormones and dangerous bacteria in the American birds. Amid tense negotiations over the poultry ban this week in Moscow, a Russian veterinary service official said he wants to inspect US poultry plants that export to Russia.
That statement strikes a chord with many Russians, who are generally ready to believe the worst of foreigners in any case.
"Yes, they're poisoning us," says Zoya Lubovtsova, a Moscow pensioner. "I stopped buying Bush legs a few years ago, because they're too fatty and funny- tasting. I knew there was something wrong with them." She buys only Russian chicken now, though she says it's a drain on her meager budget.
Other shoppers scoff at the idea that American chicken is tainted, but say they've switched to local produce for other reasons.
"Ten years ago we didn't have much choice, and Bush legs were cheap and tasty," says Yevgenia Fotina, a middle-aged Moscow homemaker.
"Now you can buy many different cuts of locally grown fresh chicken, if you look for it and are willing to pay more," Ms. Fotina. "Fresh is always better."
Supporters of the ban say the grocery shelves in relatively well-heeled Moscow are not typical of the country as a whole, however. Most of Russia remains sunk in economic depression, and the ban proponents say the cheap American chicken legs are preventing local producers from reviving.
"A country that can't grow its own chicken is a sad spectacle," says the Peasants Party's Chernichenko. "Our producers need a chance to get into the market, to make some money and invest it in future improvements. The Americans don't hesitate to protect their own, and neither should we."
An official with the Agriculture Ministry, who asked that his name not be used, said the ban on American chicken will probably be temporary, and could be modified by the ongoing negotiations between Russian and American trade officials.
But, the official added, the dominance of Bush legs is a fading artifact of Russia's difficult post-Soviet transition rather than a normal market situation.
"Our domestic poultry production is growing by about 10 percent annually," he says, "and quality is constantly improving."
"With or without protection, our own industry will eventually retake its home market. With protection, that will happen much faster."
Not everyone is pleased. Natalia Num is a World War II veteran who scrapes by on a monthly pension of 1,500 rubles ($50). She says she'd be happy to buy Russian chicken, but she simply can't afford to pay 25 to 30 percent more.
"I've been eating Bush legs for 10 years and I've never been poisoned. That's nonsense," she says. "I buy the cheapest, and now they're taking it away. I can't understand that. What am I supposed to do?"