Notebook

Last updated: August 26, 2014 5:41 pm

Finding the right stomach for sanctions

Muscovites seem happy to sacrifice foreign food luxuries for Russia, writes Courtney Weaver
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Danila Medvedev, a longtime Moscow opposition activist, is no fan of President Vladimir Putin. A fluent English speaker who works for the Russian Transhumanist Movement, a philosophical-scientific group that deals with intelligence enhancement and cryogenics, Mr Medvedev had been part of the opposition even before the 2011-12 anti-Kremlin protests.

A loud critic of Kremlin corruption, Mr Medvedev was excited when he saw the protests unfolding in Kiev against Ukraine’s then president Viktor Yanukovich last year. Seeing parallels to the anti-Putin protests in Moscow, Mr Medvedev decided to travel down to Kiev’s Maidan square – the epicentre of the protests – in January and see the movement for himself. “I was supportive of what was going on there,” Mr Medvedev says.

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Over the ensuing months this changed – drastically. Mr Medvedev became disappointed by Ukraine’s new leaders, whom he alleges are no better than Mr Yanukovich. He also came to believe the west was manipulating events for its own interests. Mr Medvedev’s breaking point, he says, came on May 2 when dozens of pro-Russian separatists died in a deadly fire in Odessa during clashes with pro-Ukrainian football fans. After that, he began working as an activist for “Novorossiya” or “New Russia”, the historical term Mr Putin invoked when referring to southern and southeastern Ukraine this spring. He is helping the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics create their own banking system.

“People in Russia have seen [the events in Ukraine] as a sign,” says Mr Medvedev, who argues the US’s actions there are threatening the Russian nation. “Even though I don’t like [Mr] Putin one bit, I like the idea the US will create another Serbia, Libya or Syria even less.”

While the news cycle has focused on western sanctions against Moscow over the events in Ukraine and Russia’s ban on western food products, life in Moscow has continued as normal. Restaurants are packed and grocery store shelves still stocked. The real change has been in attitude.

At the beginning of August, Mr Putin’s approval rating hit 87 per cent, according to the respected pollster Levada Centre, an all-time high for the president’s 14-year political career.

Even though I don’t like [Mr] Putin one bit, I like the idea the US will create another Serbia, Libya or Syria even less

Three years ago thousands of well-heeled Muscovites were rallying against the Kremlin in the so-called “revolution of the satisfied”. Today many of them are happy to forgo their Camembert and New York strip steak as necessary sacrifices in a broader geopolitical struggle.

Ask the shoppers of Moscow’s high-end grocery stores if they think the Russian government did the right thing by banning most meat, dairy and food produce from the EU and the US, and many will say yes, even those who have stacked their trolleys with the soon-to-be extinct items.

Even some restaurant owners and food distributors who stand to be affected by the new measures have brushed off the potential consequences. Boris Zarkov, owner of the elite restaurant White Rabbit, which specialises in oysters and other imported delicacies, proclaimed that Russia’s response to sanctions “wouldn’t affect the restaurant business in a big way at all”. “It’s become clear that some things will need to change but it’s not scary,” he told the newswire Interfax.

Banx cartoon

A Spanish and Portuguese meat distributor told me she also supported the ban. Though bad for business, the ban was a necessary response to the west, which she said had been hitting Russia “like a piñata”. She said she would find other countries to import meat from.

This attitude is reflected among once prominent leaders of the opposition as well. Eduard Limonov, a longtime leader of the anti-Kremlin movement, has argued for Russia’s direct military intervention in east Ukraine. Another member of Mr Limonov’s political party announced that The Other Russia should do away with its years-long slogan “Russia Without Putin!”.

Mr Medvedev says he is ready for current and future sanctions. “We’ve managed to endure much worse,” he says. Yet some of those 84 per cent of Russians who approve of Mr Putin may start to feel differently when the summer comes to an end.

The effect of sanctions on the economy might not be visible for months to come, but eventually the creeping effects of the economic slowdown, the import ban and rouble devaluation are likely to come to the fore. Camembert and strip steaks may be expendable but inflation and rising food prices are harder to ignore.

courtney.weaver@ft.com

Twitter: @courtneymoscow

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