Burning Flowers: Putin Risks Domestic Backlash

08.25.15

Burning Flowers: Putin Risks Domestic Backlash

08.25.15
RIA NovostiRIA Novosti

By Niels Van Wanrooij for Global Risk Insights

Russia has started to burn Dutch flowers, which according to Russia’s agricultural watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor, are a threat to public health. They were banned from the Russian market on July 27 “as a temporary measure.”

Claimed to be infected “Western Californian flower thrips,” the flowers are the latest item to be banned from the Russian market under the guise of public safety concerns, preceded by bans of Georgian wine, Baltic dairy and Ukrainian chocolate.

The move is widely seen as a symbolic retaliation for a Dutch-led investigation into the MH17 shooting in eastern Ukraine last year. Investigators have implicated Russia as providing the missile that shot down the plane. Last month, Russia blocked a resolution co-sponsored by the Netherlands calling for a UN-tribunal to be set up to prosecute the culprits.

Representing 5 percent of total Dutch flower sales, the Netherlands is Russia’s biggest flower supplier, exporting 30,700 tons with an estimated worth of $ 225.4 mn last year.

Flower prices will spike and as prices increase three- or four-fold, the flower market may contract by as much as 80 percent, according to Russian flower company BPF Group. This will hit consumers in a country where flower-giving is an important part of the culture.

Destroying food: domestically risky

In response to Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine, Russia instituted a ban on food imports from the EU, the US and several other Western countries. As a consequence of the trade war, Russian consumers are faced with soaring inflation and rising food prices.

Putin’s popularity among Russians has so far seemed unaffected by the economic downturn, with approval ratings of 87 percent in July, according to polls by the Levada Centre. Part of the explanation is the state’s domination of the media, who mostly focus on various threats to Russia to detract from the economic crisis.

In addition to burning Dutch flowers, earlier this month Russia started to destroy seized illegal food imports. On August 6, over 10 tons of ‘illegal’ cheese were bulldozed, and dozens of tons of other foodstuffs await the same fate.

Ignoring a petition signed by over 320,000 people calling for distributing the food to the Russian poor, the government has been criticized by various Russian political commentators, calling the move a show of “clear contempt” for ordinary people and an empty gesture in lieu of an effective response to Western sanctions. Small demonstrations have also been staged in St. Petersburg.

While state media has turned it into a public spectacle and celebration of Russian sovereignty, the move is politically risky for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The vivid images of the destruction has provoked outrage within a Russian society that still remembers the famines of the Soviet-era and faces a poverty rate of over 11 percent. Even the Orthodox clergy and usually conformist Russian newspapers denounce the Kremlin’s actions – the latter calling it “downright stupid.”

On top of ossifying the low in Russia’s relations with the West, the continued ostentatious destruction of illegally imported Western foods may augur a domestic backlash for Putin’s regime.

As citizens start to feel the pain at their supermarkets and in their refrigerators, Russian media will have to work harder and harder to spin it as a political victory.

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