August 7, 2014 / 4:08 PM / 4 years ago

Russian shoppers face life without imported delicacies

* Russia bans Western food imports to retaliate against sanctions

* Shoppers stock up on foreign products before ban bites

* Older generation recalls Soviet-era queues for food

* Putin confident Russian suppliers can fill gap

* Brazil keen to grab share of huge Russian market

By Alexander Winning and Dmitry Zhdannikov

MOSCOW, Aug 7 (Reuters) - TsUM department store once showcased the Soviet Union’s meagre offering of consumer goods. Now shops in its basement food hall are stuffed with imported delicacies catering for today’s well-heeled Russians - the very goods the Kremlin has decided to ban.

On Thursday, Moscow’s middle and upper classes still browsed through the aisles neatly stacked with French cheeses, Australian wines and Spanish cured meats at the Globus Gourmet supermarket. Among the offerings was a rare local product - a can of black caviar costing $1,800.

Such shopping trips may mark a last chance to stock up on everything except the caviar for at least a year; President Vladimir Putin - whose office lies a stone’s throw away in the Kremlin - has signed a decree banning for 12 months imports of food from any country that has imposed sanctions on Russia.

“I remember standing in queues in Soviet times, when there was nothing on the shelves, but my children have grown up differently and we have different tastes,” said Maria, an office worker in her fifties at TsUM’s Gothic-style building, who declined to give her full name.

“It’s a nightmare, of course. Nothing good will come of it,” she said during a shopping trip with her friend, Anna.

TsUM (Central Universal Department Store) dates from the early 20th century and was nationalised during the Russian revolution. After Soviet communism collapsed more than two decades ago, it returned to private hands, supplying a city that now has more billionaires than anywhere else except New York.

Today door staff gaze vaguely disapprovingly at any arriving customers who appear unlikely to be able to afford the often sky-prices inside.

Hit by sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, Russia has retaliated by imposing sweeping bans on fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, milk and dairy imports from the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada and Norway.

If the ban is implemented in full, shops like Globus Gourmet - and there are dozens of them in Moscow - will be hurt badly.

Putin said Russian producers will easily fill the gap, and unaffected countries such as Brazil and some former Soviet republics are keen to grab a bigger share of a huge market.


Russia bought about $40 billion worth of imported food last year. It has become by far the biggest consumer of EU fruit and vegetables, the second biggest buyer of U.S. poultry and a major consumer of fish, meat and dairy products.

While the basics will probably remain available, the ban has also reawoken memories of the spartan Soviet era for Anna.

“My friends used to bring me tiny blocks of cheese from Holland as a present,” she said. Anna was rushing to stock up on imported gluten-free produce needed by people with wheat allergies, which she said was in short supply in Moscow.

Both women said the restrictions would hurt ordinary Russians most of all, and they feared a sharp rise in prices for everyday essentials.

By no means is all imported food for the wealthy. For instance, Russians have eaten their way through huge quantities of U.S. chicken pieces since the early post-communist days.

The Russian central bank has already warned that import bans could make it harder to control inflation, which dipped to an annual 7.5 percent in July but remains well above last year’s 6.5 percent rate.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the government would make sure inflation remained under control but also promised that anyone who tried to profit from the import bans would be punished.

Most Russians would associate such warnings with Soviet campaigns against “speculators” when people could go to jail for trying to import and sell jeans or video recorders.

Medvedev also said Russia has managed to raise domestic food production sharply and should face no problems in substituting imports except of milk and certain types of meat, mainly beef.

Unlike shoppers, most members of the business community were more careful in their comments on the ban.

Russia’s business elite has so far stayed firmly behind Putin, despite expectations in Washington and Brussels that sanctions on some of the president’s closest allies would lead to them to pressure him into changing course on Ukraine.

“We understand the political difficulties and will adjust,” said Sergei Galitsky, co-owner of Russia’s largest food chain Magnit. “Russia probably has to respond to sanctions. So here we are. What can you do?” he told the Kommersant newspaper.

Mikhail Susov, who manages the Globus Gourmet chain, said shops needed time to adapt, especially the big groups. “We will be fine. We won’t have empty shelves but the choice will be worse,” he said.

Vladimir Rusanov, a spokesman for another retailer, X5, said that 35-40 percent of his firm’s goods were imported. “Now we will have to boost ties with the Customs Union (with Kazakhstan and Belarus) and southeast Asia,” he said.

Mikhail Anshakov from the Society of Consumer Protection was less optimistic. “We may soon see rationing cards. Many products are either imported or made from foreign material. Our producers are not real producers, they just package stuff,” he said. (Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Olga Sichkar and Tatiana Ustinova, Editing by David Stamp)

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