The threat to Russia from cheese is finally over, folks. On Thursday TV viewers watched live as tons of cheese and other banned products from the European Union were destroyed by steamrollers.
This surreal moment was too much even for many Russian TV viewers well used to surreal moments. A petition calling instead for the banned produce to be distributed to the needy went viral, prompting the spokesman for Putin, Dmitry Peskov, recently exposed as the owner of a fleet of outrageously expensive watches, to promise that the signatures would undergo "expert" checks.
Yet the outcry was genuine, not manufactured by the CIA or 'fifth columnists', as the BBC noted quoting editorials in Russia's normally pliant press.
The woman who started the petition, which had almost 300,000 signatures, Olga Saveleva told the BBC "if they start destroying food, what next? It's like our authorities don't care about the people."
She said that one pensioner had written to her saying "I can't eat, I can't buy this or that, so if you want to destroy produce, bring it to my home. I can eat it!"
Poverty in Russia is ticking upwards with more than 15% below the official poverty line (which is US $160 a month). Inflation is at least 16%, more for many common food items. Social and health spending has been simultaneously decreasing as the military and propaganda budgets go up and government revenue comes down because of the dramatic drop in the price of oil and the value of the ruble.
The state of Russia's government services was highlighted last week when it emerged that one pensioner had died and 18 were hospitalized from starvation in a prison masquerading as an old folks home.
Russia now has the highest level of wealth inequality in the world. However one sector of the economy is doing well. The builders of crematoriums are stepping up to meet the sudden demand to burn food.
At the same time that cheese is crushed and poverty is rising, Russia is moving to defend the elites money by spending billions compensating the rich for any loses from Western sanctions, possibly by using money intended to shore up Russia’s pension system. The pension fund has already been raided to fund the annexation of Crimea.
Russia banned food from the European Union, Canada, America and Australia last year in response to sanctions imposed after the invasion of Crimea. It believed that pressure from Europe's powerful farmers would get sanctions lifted but that has not happened and now the Kremlin is thinking about adding X-ray machines, defibrillators and condoms to a banned list which already includes medicines.
Meanwhile, Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny disclosed on his blog that Russian state agencies have continued to order banned products for their own needs.
They eat Dorblu cheese, dab their mouths with a napkin, and then turn to the camera and talk about how right it is to destroy European products.The whole episode is surreal but also senseless as previously most ordinary Russians thought it was the West which had banned food exports to Russia. Now they know better. Here are two Russian 'opposition' journalists setting fire to cheese.
Олег Кашин и Павел Лобков жгут сыр и говорят о сакральном смысле уничтожения еды: https://t.co/9BzbbcdyZW https://t.co/YDw8utBUct— Телеканал ДОЖДЬ (@tvrain) August 6, 2015
Aside from the mockery, after the highly public destruction the internet was flooded with pictures of poor Russians scavenging amongst the food dumps.
Writes William Echols:
Even when the authorities so brazenly flaunt their ill-gotten wealth, the Russian people still look West for the source of their social ills. How long the Kremlin can keep up this shell game of misdirected blame is anyone’s guess.Says the Russian commentator Andrey Piontkovsky (translated by Paul Goble):
Putin thinks he can get anything by intimidation, but he is no longer frightening anyone. And the economy of his country, “deprived of Western technology and credits will not be able to function normally” as the collapse of the ruble.
According to Piontkovsky, all this shows that “we are already at that stage of an authoritarian regime when it passes into a totalitarian one,” and “the fate of such regimes is,” he suggests, “a palace coup” especially against a leader who has lost the mandate of heaven as shown by popular support.
Putin’s closest entourage, he continues, “understands that [Putin’s] policies not only threaten a national catastrophe but also (what is more important for them) hurts their personal interests for all of the people in the close circle of Putin are dollar billionaires who cannot exist without quite close, deep and friendly relations with the West.”
Now that the Russian people may be angry at Putin for what he is doing instead of remaining uncritically supportive, he suggests, may thus make the present moment or one very soon a time when those closest to the Kremlin leader will decide that it is time for him to go and for them to help him on his way out.