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Russians Outraged At Destruction Of EU Food


You probably wouldn't be surprised to see law enforcement officers destroying illegal drugs. But Russian TV viewers have been watching their government destroy food - burning, bulldozing and crushing hundreds of tons of produce, cheese and fish. These products are considered contraband because they've come into Russia from the European Union, and that's a violation of sanctions that Russia imposed on EU food imports last year. The spectacle of food burning has captured the Russian public's imagination, so much so that a writer did a spoof of a patriotic Soviet song called "The Death Of A Partisan." The sendup is called, "The Death Of A Parmesan." Get it? Parmesan.


ZAZA ZAALISHVILI: (Singing in Italian).

MARTIN: Andrew Kramer has been writing about this food fight for The New York Times. He joins me on the line from Moscow. Thanks so much for being with us, Andrew.

ANDREW KRAMER: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Can you remind us the circumstances of this ban on EU food imports?

KRAMER: Sure. Now, this began a year ago, when the United States and European Union imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing the Crimean Peninsula. Russia retaliated by banning many European food products, although not all of them. The problem was that Russia's customs service is notoriously corrupt and not very effective. And many food items were getting into Russia in spite of the ban. This year, there was a demonstrative attempt to enforce this prohibition more carefully. And this summer, Russia began burning, crushing and otherwise destroying food.

MARTIN: I mentioned a couple examples, produce, cheese, fish - any particular varieties of these food stuffs? What are they destroying?

KRAMER: On the first day, Russian television showed a bulldozer crushing large rounds of cheese into a landfill in western Russia. There are also images broadcast of truckloads of peaches and nectarines being crushed. And the Russians incinerated about a hundred tons of pork.

MARTIN: Why do they have to destroy it? I mean, just at a very root level, the act of destroying food, when I'm sure there are plenty of people in Russia who would benefit, you can think of ways to give that food away. Why would they destroy it?

KRAMER: I think there are two answers. Officially, the food is being destroyed so that corrupt officials don't confiscate it under the pretext of the ban and then resell it or even eat it themselves. The food must be destroyed with two witnesses. And the act must be videotaped. On another level, I think that it's a political statement they're sending to the Europeans and also to their own audience here in Russia that Russia has a means to react to Western sanctions. This is a country that's wealthy enough, that's progressed enough from its earlier post-Soviet period when there was hunger here and food shortage. Now it can afford to crush cheese into the ground, to destroy pork, if it so chooses.

MARTIN: How is the public reacting?

KRAMER: Well, there are certainly people who support this. There's also a large number of Russians who are outraged. The Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has seized on this issue as one that might be damaging to the Kremlin. He's found evidence that public officials have ordered catering services that include banned European cheese. So it may be an issue that the opposition here in Russia is able to gain some traction with.

MARTIN: Any idea how this is going to affect the importation of contraband? I mean, is it likely to curb it at all?

KRAMER: The Russian authorities say that it is curbing the contraband. Obviously, Russia has a lot of border space to guard. And so it's not hard to find European cheese in Russia, in Moscow. And I don't think that it'll be too much more difficult in the future. I was just at a cafe in Moscow and had a cheese plate with plenty of blue cheese and other sorts of European cheese.

MARTIN: Andrew, you're eating illegal cheese?

KRAMER: Well, I wouldn't be sure it's illegal. I was just served this at a restaurant, so - (laughter) - don't accuse me to soon here.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Andrew Kramer of The New York Times. Thanks so much for talking with us.

KRAMER: Sure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.