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GAZETA WYBORCZA

The Straw Man Of Russia's Western Food Embargo

Russia may be officially forbidding Western food on grocery shelves, but facing skyrocketing prices and shortages, it's allowing Belarus and Kazakhstan to act as intermediaries.

Belarusian President Lukashenko, Kazakh President Nazarbayev and Russian President Putin in Astana in May
Belarusian President Lukashenko, Kazakh President Nazarbayev and Russian President Putin in Astana in May
Andrzej Kublik

WARSAW — It seems that Russia has created an end-around for its embargo against the West, creating intermediaries to bring to market the very goods that it has professed to ban.

Moscow officials have authorized Belarus and Kazakhstan to play this role of intermediary, handling imports from short-listed countries. "Our partners from the customs union will be able to benefit from the situation by processing on their territory some of the articles previously exported directly to Russia," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said.

According to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the retaliatory food embargo being imposed on the West should reshuffle the Russian market, which "needs competition, not a monopoly of Polish apples or Norwegian fish."

But Putin's response to Western sanctions, which have come as a result of Russian aggression in Ukraine, will hit his own countrymen hardest, creating skyrocketing prices and food shortages.

The wholesale price of salmon, for example, has risen by 15% to 20% — and this is despite the assertion by Russian officials that the gap created by the absence of Norwegian supplies would be filled with fish from native waters. In reality, enterprises from Russia's eastern coastline estimate that prices this year will be twice as high as in previous years.

Meanwhile, the third-party countries — Belarus and Kazakhstan, together with Russia, form the Eurasian Customs Union — seem to be benefitting from the Russian/West standoff.

Within the first week of the embargo being in force, the Belarus company Santa Bremor increased its supplies of salmon to Russia by 30%. Given that Belarus doesn't have access to the sea, its growing fishing export is readily mocked by Russian journalists.

A Belarus company willing to export Polish apples to Russia can simply flip the fruits into Belarusian boxes, making it difficult for customs officials to detect the contraband. Moscow is also more likely to turn a blind eye on the system's inadequacies than deal with food deficits and high retail prices.

Germany's agriculture minister said in a recent interview that Russia won't be able to bear for long the economic isolation of sanctions against the West, as its agriculture can meet only 60% of the country's demand.

Belarus, on the other hand, can start to count its potential economic windfall. Last year, Russia imported 705,000 tons of Polish apples valued at $389 million. According to the news portal Belorusskie Novosti, the re-export of Polish apples could bring the country up to $25 million.

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