Europe

Ukraine sanctions: 'Buy Russian' campaign defies embargo

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Media captionThe food import ban has sparked a wave of patriotism in Russia

The new sign above the entrance says it all: "No Oyster Bar".

Just a year after it opened for business, the popular restaurant in Moscow's Gorky Park has been forced into a radical image change.

Gourmet shellfish are just one of many things that have vanished in Russia since President Vladimir Putin banned fresh food imports from those countries that blame him for the crisis in Ukraine.

"We had to explain to our guests that there'd be Russian meat and fish now, instead of oysters," shrugs Ilya Sokhin, revealing his restaurant's more prosaic new menu.

Beefburgers, beetroot soup and blini have replaced the snails and seafood once rushed straight from Paris to Mr Sokhin's smart Moscow table-tops.

"We changed our name from Oyster Bar to No Oyster Bar to make a bit of a joke of it, but of course it's affected us," Mr Sokhin admits. "We've had to change our whole concept."

The import ban was Russia's way of lashing back against Western economic sanctions. By targeting key sectors of Russia's economy, the US and EU hoped to force President Putin to stop supporting rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine. Instead he imposed additional sanctions on Russia itself.

The aim was to hurt European food producers for whom Russia is a major market, but the growing middle class here at home has also been affected.

Some of the finer foods they had grown used to - Serrano ham, Italian parmesan - have gone. The popular Evrasia sushi chain blames rising fish prices for the closure of 15 branches in Moscow, and up in Murmansk the boss of one fish plant threatened to sue the government after the Norwegian catch he processes was banned.

Image caption The renamed No Oyster Bar in Moscow - making do without foreign shellfish
Image caption Exotic Russian meats are on offer in Moscow: moose and ostrich, as well as mutton

Patient consumers

But there has been no broader backlash. In fact one poll published this week revealed that most Russians believe sanctions can actually boost the economy; two in five told the Levada Centre they would accept an even bigger ban on foreign imports if necessary.

That is partly because supermarket shelves have not emptied here - it is their content that has changed.

At one central Moscow store this week the dairy counter was full of packages labelled Edam, Gouda and Ricotta - but on closer inspection much of it was made here in Russia.

Image caption A sticker at an agricultural fair says: "Stavropol's answer to sanctions"

What it cannot produce itself, Russia has so far managed to import from sources outside the sanctions zone.

The changes have added to pressure on prices, but not on the government.

"People are calm, because they put up with worse than this for 70 years," is how one shopper named Vladimir explained Russians' stoicism - referring to the Soviet era, often characterised by shortages and queues.

"They're ready to put up with price rises and so on for even longer."

That tolerance is also down to the powerful message pumped daily into millions of living rooms by state television: self-sanctions are a great opportunity, politicians insist, calling on local producers to seize back the market from foreign imports.

Buying Russian

No wonder the annual agricultural fair had a particularly patriotic flavour.

Visitors to the main pavilion were greeted by women in plastic flower headdresses singing lovingly of the Russian countryside as plucked chickens plopped onto conveyer belts on video screens behind them.

Image caption Russian mozzarella: The import ban is an opportunity for home producers, the government argues

One saleswoman thrust plastic trays of moose meat at passers-by: a national alternative, perhaps, to prosciutto. A stand offering local ham was plastered with "prohibited" stickers for Western produce. "Our response to sanctions," they proclaimed proudly.

Yet behind the scenes, producers warned that "Russian food for Russia" is easier said than done.

"There were around 4m beef cows in 1991, now there's only 1.5m," Russian-born cattle farmer Matharu Singh pointed out. Increasing meat production cannot happen overnight, however badly the politicians want it.

"It's animals, not machines," he added. "It takes time."

Boosting domestic output would take major investment too.

'Cheese is cheese'

"None of us wants to plan our businesses based on sanctions," explains Andrei Danilenko, chairman of the National Dairy Association, stressing that no-one knows how long the import ban will last.

"So the critical question for the government is: what are you going to step up and do for us, to increase production?"

Mr Danilenko cites a long list of complaints including high interest rates and restrictive regulations - and a poor government record of delivering on its promises.

"There are producers who have not received subsidies for two years or more. Producers today will only believe cash in the bank," he warns.

Still, judging by the crowd at the agricultural fair there clearly is a taste for buying Russian.

"Cheese is cheese. I don't see any difference!" one girl laughed, swallowing a shiny white ball of mozzarella - made in Moscow.

"It's easily on a par with Italian cheese," Anna agrees. "I think Russia can definitely replace imports. It's a huge and capable country. I think we can cope," she insists.

That is the message Russians are being fed each day, not the doubts.

And in the current climate it seems most are ready to swallow the forced changes to their diet - for the sake of a national cause.

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