Russians watched in horror last week as government officials bulldozed approximately four hundred tons of EU-imported cheese, nectarines, tomatoes, and other foods in retaliation for Western sanctions. But now, Icelandic fish, Albanian fruit, and Montenegrin pork may be added to the list of goods getting burned and buried across the Russian countryside.
On Thursday, Russia added four non-EU countries to the list of nations from which it has banned most food imports due to their support for sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine: Albania, Montenegro, Liechtenstein, and Iceland. The ban includes meat, fish, dairy products, fruit, and vegetables. While some analysts have suggested that the economic consequences could be dire, especially for Iceland, which exports around 10 percent of its seafood to Russia, others have scoffed that the new ban is purely political. The timing and nature of the ban, they say, is just another attempt by Russia to flex its political muscle on the global stage.
“Lichtenstein isn’t exporting anything other than the banking services. This is a Russian bureaucratic kabuki theater, and it’s making the Kremlin look ridiculous,” says Ariel Cohen, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“They [Russian officials] are still trying to demonstrate that Russia can tough out the sanctions, that they have a stiff upper lip. And they are engaged in some consumables theater, meaning they are destroying very publicly contraband fruit and flowers, driving the Russian public crazy. This has no popular support, and running a street paving machine over cheese is ridiculous.”
But the potential economic consequences cannot be brushed aside entirely. Some analysts have suggested that Iceland could face millions of dollars in revenue losses due to the ban, as Russia is currently Iceland’s largest market for fisheries product, particularly mackerel.
Russia was also Albania's third largest trading partner in 2014, trailing behind only the US and China. Traditionally, however, Albania mostly exports leather shoes to Russia, not foodstuffs.
Ukraine, Montenegro, Albania, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway have all recently aligned themselves with the EU decision to extend its sanctions against Russia until January 2016. Curiously, however, Russia has staggered the implementation of its ban on goods from these countries. Only Norway, which traditionally exports salmon to Russia, was already subjected to sanctions starting last year. Meanwhile, no bans on Ukrainian food stuffs have been planned for the near future, although Russian officials confirmed that a ban will be implemented in 2016 if Ukraine chooses to enter into an economic association agreement with the European Union.
Georgia, surprisingly, has not been included in this most recent ban due to its decision not to extend its support to the sanctions regime. The move was surprising due to the association agreement it entered into with the European Union last summer.
Montenegro and Albania, two EU-membership hopefuls, are currently part of the EU’s Stabilization and Association Process. Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway do not aspire to EU membership, but are members of the European Economic Area.
Most food imports from the US, European Union, Canada, and Australia have been banned in Russia since last year. The effects of the bans have been felt by EU exporters and Russian consumers alike. Exports to Russia are important to EU farmers, and the EU has already been forced to compensate agricultural producers with around $170 million to keep prices from collapsing. In Russia, meanwhile, the bans have pushed up food prices by 20 percent.
Russians across the Internet have responded with outrage at the public destruction of food, sparking the hashtag #RussiaBurns.
“This brings very painful memories in Russia about manmade hunger of the 1920s and 1930s, when the Bolsheviks collectivized agriculture and forced everyone into collective farms, which resulted in a famine that killed over 5 million people,” explains Mr. Cohen. “So, Russians are very sensitive to the destruction of food.”
But with characteristically Russian humor, Internet memes and even poems bemoaning the fate of imported Parmesan have begun popping up across the Internet.
One popular parody was a modified image of the famous painting of Russian king Ivan the Terrible, cradling his dead son in remorse after accidentally killing him, except the body of his son was airbrushed out and replaced with a block of Swiss cheese.
The US and the EU originally imposed sanctions in response to Moscow's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine. The sanctions have severed Russia's access to capital markets and banned the transfers of military and energy technologies. As a result, France recently slashed a deal to sell two warships to Russia, while Russia has taken to burning imported chrysanthemums from the Netherlands.