The “purifying fire” came as a surprise when the Russian government starting burning food and boasting about it on state television.
A year ago, the government introduced an embargo on food imports from Western countries. This embargo raised domestic food prices and contributed to a major decline in real incomes. But why isn’t it enough to confiscate Western food? Why burn it?
For people raised in Soviet and post- Soviet Russia, the destruction of food is a taboo. In the past 100 years, Russia has experienced several famines. Even though there is no famine in modern Russia, more than 20 million people live in poverty. It would certainly make more sense to hand out food to them instead of destroying it. Can food burning be rationalized?
Actually, for today’s Russian government, burning imports is a very rational move because it looks so horrible. The Kremlin wants to send a clear message: Yes, we can do things that you find irrational and unthinkable; do not mess with us. It is important to communicate this message inside and outside of Russia. To its supporters within Russia, the government says: The standoff with the West is a matter of principle, whatever the economic cost. (Such a statement is very timely — Russia’s second-quarter gross domestic product fell by 4.6 percent over the second quarter of last year.) The Kremlin also sends a signal of self-confidence to the domestic opposition: The government can afford doing unpopular things and still remain in control.
Outside of Russia, this is a signal of commitment to the course of confrontation. The West should understand that it cannot predict the Kremlin’s actions, and Western leaders should be afraid that Russia will do things that they would not dare do themselves. Coming from a nuclear power, this message sounds especially frightening.
But this is not the whole story. Food burning also demonstrates that the embargo’s main goal was not to reciprocate Western sanctions. If the goal were to punish European farmers, the government would confiscate the imports and hand them to the poor — this would hurt the European exporters as much as burning the food would. Food burning benefits only the Russian agricultural lobby. It reduces the supply of food in Russia, raising domestic prices and domestic producers’ profits. In this sense, food burning is not geopolitics; it is good old protectionism, fair and square. It shows that the government cares more about the agricultural lobby than Russian households.
Russia’s anti-trade lobby has always been strong, but the World Trade Organization (WTO) accession in August 2012 has put it in a straitjacket. Initially, the Russian elites did not fully understand the WTO’s power. Allegedly, when selling the WTO accession to leftist members of parliament, a top government official said, “You should not worry about WTO rules; we will only pretend to stick to them while continuing protectionist policies.” After joining the WTO, the government introduced a “car recycling duty.” It was supposed to be paid only by foreign car manufacturers — to protect the domestic automotive sector after WTO accession commitments required a lowering of car import duties. However, Russia soon discovered that the WTO is a rule-based organization with teeth. An obvious violation of rules would result in retaliation — which other members immediately told Russia. Russia had to return to the equal playing field, and the government imposed the recycling duty on domestic car producers as well.
With Russia’s annexation of Crimea, everything has changed. Having sold the cow, Russia has also sold her milk. Having violated the U.N. Charter when it did so, Russia can afford to break WTO rules. Once sanctions against Russia were introduced, politically connected businesses successfully lobbied for sector-specific and even company-specific subsidies and protectionist regulations — even if they violate WTO rules. These decisions show that the government’s priority is protecting the incomes of the lobbyists at the expense of Russian taxpayers and pensioners. If there are still any doubts as to whether the government cares more about the corrupt elites or about the ordinary Russians, the “purifying fire” has burned these doubts into the ground.
Sergei Guriev is a professor of economics at Sciences Po in Paris.