Moscow Cheese Seller Hit Hard by Sanctions

by Kathy Jones on Aug 9 2014 10:30 PM

 Moscow Cheese Seller Hit Hard by Sanctions
The embargo on importing cheese in Moscow is hurting many businesses.
"Nobody saw this coming" says Alexander Krupetskov, a young Muscovite who recently opened his high-end cheese shop on a quiet street in the capital's city centre.

His "Cheese Sommelier", a small boutique packed with premium European cheeses, has been in business for only two months.

The shop's two refrigerated cases are lined with little rounds of French camembert, big wheels of Italian parmigiano-reggiano, Dutch gouda, English cheddar and small bricks of Greek feta.

Krupetskov's timing couldn't have been worse.

Moscow announced on Thursday it was introducing an embargo on most food imports from Western countries that have imposed punishing sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and alleged support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Imports of beef, pork, fruit and vegetable produce, poultry, fish, cheese, milk and dairy products from the European Union, United States, Australia, Canada and Norway have been immediately banned.

Krupetskov acknowledged that news of the sanctions hit him like a body blow: among the tiny flags stuck into the cheeses packed in his cases is a conspicuous absence of the Russian tricolour.

"I don't have any Russian cheese," said Krupetskov. "My selection is of European cheeses and of course my shelves will empty" unless the Russian government rescinds or relaxes the embargo.

"It is a serious blow for me" he said, but "I don't plan to close."

First to go will be the soft-ripened French cheeses which must be eaten within a month.

Krupetskov is better placed for hard cheeses, which will age well through the year that the embargo is supposed to last.

A hole in the Russian embargo will let in Swiss cheese, so Krupetskov will still be able to supply Muscovites with gruyere and appenzeller.

The 27-year-old entrepreneur said he opened the "Cheese Sommelier" for middle-class Russians like himself who have travelled to European countries and now crave the genuine products which are important to their traditional cuisines.

The shelves of Moscow supermarkets are full of European cheese, meat, fish and wine to satisfy the demand of well-heeled Russians for premium products.

Official data from the European Union shows that Russia imports 35 percent of the food it consumes, and that 10 percent of its needs come from the EU, much of it in the form of processed products for which Russian consumers have developed a liking.

- How to replace Rocquefort? -

While Russian officials have voiced confidence that new suppliers for most imported products can be found, this will be easier for basic necessities rather than the luxuries many Russians have become used to.

Officials say this so-called import substitution will even be healthy, giving domestic producers a chance.

Economists worry that the ban will lead to higher prices and squeeze the incomes of ordinary Russians, but a poll released on Friday suggested that public support for responding to Western sanctions is running strong.

Krupetskov agreed that many Russians may not notice anything until prices begin to rise on domestic cheese.

"But for people like me it is serious," he said "I have no idea what you can replace Rocquefort with."

Krupetskov said Russia does not have the cheesemaking culture which exists in western Europe where small farmers use only fresh milk and focus on quality to create their dairy delicacies.

Soviet collectivisation wiped out traditional farming and today Russia's industrial food producers often use powdered milk, he said.

"I had planned to start looking in September for Russian suppliers, to find interesting cheeses made by small farmers, but now of course it has now been pushed up to a top priority," Krupetskov told AFP.

"I have a few contacts and I've made a few calls already."

Krupetskov said his suppliers are also optimistic they will find ways around the sanctions and obtain quality cheeses from other countries.

"I don't see any reason to panic," said Krupetskov.