’Crazy, Stupid, Mean’: Russia Slammed For Destroying Food Rather Than Feeding Poor
A bulldozer destroys perfectly edible Western cheese in the Belgorod region on August 6.
The Kremlin is steamrolling over criticism of its decision to destroy banned Western food imports, literally.
Despite widespread criticism over President Vladimir Putin's decree for smuggled Western food to be destroyed as of August 6 -- the one-year anniversary of Russia's ban on such imports in retaliation for international sanctions -- 10 tons of contraband foreign cheese was steamrollered outside Belgorod, a city near the Ukrainian border.
In Altai, near the Kazakh border, some 100 kilos of apples from the Netherlands, mushrooms from Poland, and kiwis from Italy were also destroyed, according to radiovesti.ru reported on August 6.
The idea that perfectly good food should be destroyed, and not put to better use, prompted public outcry that included an online campaign calling on the food to be used to feed the poor instead.
The decree to destroy food has sparked criticism in Russia, where nearly 15 percent of Russia's population lives below the poverty line, according to official statistics, and the feeling is that many would rather eat imported Parmesan than see it go to waste.
"It is crazy, stupid, and mean, " a Moscow priest, Aleksey Uminskiy, said. "This foodstuff could be distributed through charity groups who help people in need, the homeless, refugees, and the elderly."
Hundreds of thousands of Russians signed the online petition pleading with Putin to cancel his latest decree and warning about potential consequences of "playing with food issues" amid economic crisis.
Activist Olga Savelyeva started the online appeal through the website change.org and a hashtag #nedaviedu (don't smash food) urging Putin to stop destroying food.
"Why destroy food which could be fed to war veterans, the pensioners, the disabled, families with many children, the victims of natural disasters, and other people in need?" Savelyeva wrote.
These people have been "hurt by these sanctions and forced to restrict their diet up to starvation, " she added.
Western sanctions imposed over Russia's involvement in the Ukraine crisis, coupled with plunging prices of oil, Russia's main export commodity, have triggered an economic recession in Russia.
The Russian economy shrunk by 2.2 percent in the first quarter of 2015 and the value of the ruble collapsed, causing inflation to rise to an annual rate of 16 percent.
Moscow's embargo of Western food imports contributed to soaring food prices that rose by more than 20 percent by July, according to official statistics.
"People can't even afford the most basic food, " Savelyeva told RFE/RL's Russian Service.
She calls Putin's order to destroy food "the most stupid decree ever in Russian history."
"This is the destruction of the population, " the activist said.
Russian police say they have seized more than 550 tons of smuggled food since the beginning of the year.
Savelyeva suspects some of the confiscated food would eventually end up on corrupt officials' tables.
"Will they destroy all that food? I doubt very much. Many other citizens who signed the petition have similar suspicions, " she said.
The presidential decree says the destruction should be supervised by two government officials and verified by photos and videos.
The activist warned Russian authorities against depriving people of food, saying "such a policy would lead to another revolution."
"Food -- it's a very dangerous topic, " Savelyeva said, warning the authorities not to play around if "they don't want something like the Maidan" -- a reference to the uprising in Ukraine that led to the ouster of pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych.
Savelyeva's petition had gathered nearly 280, 000 signatures and counting as of August 6, but Russian officials were unmoved, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov questioning the validity of the signatures.
The Agriculture Ministry said on August 5 that the smuggling of banned Western food products had decreased tenfold since Putin issued the decree in late July.
Authorities, meanwhile, have stepped up measures to catch "offenders" who violate Moscow's food embargo.
The ministry said on August 6 that meat products from Poland and Ireland were confiscated during overnight raids in the Moscow region. Polish apples were seized in the western Tver region.
Any food product deemed by authorities to be illegally imported or simply suspicious was to be burned, buried, or crushed across the country.
The European Union announced in June that it would extend its sanctions against Russia until January 2016.
Moscow responded by extending its food embargo for another year, until August 2016.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondents Yevgeniya Nazarets and Aleksandr Gostev