MOSCOW - During a televised session with ordinary Russians last month, a woman pressed President Vladimir Putin on high food prices.
Valentina Sleptsova challenged the president on why bananas from Ecuador are now cheaper in Russia than domestically-produced carrots and asked how her mother can survive on a “subsistence wage” with the cost of staples like potatoes so high, according to a recording of the annual event.
Putin acknowledged high food costs were a problem, including with “the so-called borsch basket” of basic vegetables, blaming global price increases and domestic shortages. But he said the Russian government had taken steps to address the issue and that other measures were being discussed, without elaborating.
Sleptsova represents a problem for Putin, who relies on broad public consent. The steep increases in consumer prices are unsettling some voters, particularly older Russians on small pensions who do not want to see a return to the 1990s when sky-rocketing inflation led to food shortages.
That has prompted Putin to push the government to take steps to tackle inflation. The government’s steps have included a tax on wheat exports, which was introduced last month on a permanent basis, and capping the retail price on other basic foodstuffs.
But in doing so, the president faces a tough choice: in trying to head off discontent among voters at rising prices he risks hurting Russia’s agricultural sector, with the country’s farmers complaining the new taxes are discouraging them from making long-term investments.
The moves by Russia, the world’s top wheat exporter, also have fed inflation in other countries by driving up the cost of grain. An increase in the export tax unveiled in mid-January, for example, sent global prices to their highest levels in seven years.
Putin faces no immediate political threat ahead of parliamentary elections in September after Russian authorities carried out a sweeping crackdown on opponents linked to jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Navalny’s allies have been prevented from running in the elections and are trying to persuade people to vote tactically for anyone apart from the ruling pro-Putin party even though the other main parties in contention all support the Kremlin on most major policy issues.
However, food prices are politically sensitive and containing rises to keep people broadly satisfied is part of Putin’s longstanding core strategy.
"If the price of cars goes up only a small number of people notice," said a Russian official familiar with the government's food inflation policies. "But when you buy food that you buy every day, it makes you feel like overall inflation is going up dramatically, even if it is not.”
In response to Reuters’ questions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the president was opposed to situations where the price of domestically produced products “are rising unreasonably.”
Peskov said that had nothing to do with the elections or mood of voters, adding it had been a constant priority for the president even prior to the run up to elections. He added that it was up to the government to choose which methods to combat inflation and that it was responding both to seasonal price fluctuations and global market conditions, which have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Russia’s economy ministry said that the measures imposed since the start of 2021 have helped to stabilise food prices. Sugar prices are up 3% so far this year after 65% growth in 2020 and bread prices are up 3% after 7.8% growth in 2020, it said.
Sleptsova, who state television identified as from the city of Lipetsk in central Russia, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Consumer inflation in Russia has been rising since early 2020, reflecting a global trend during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Russian government responded in December after Putin publicly criticised it for being slow to react. It set a temporary tax on wheat exports from mid-February, before imposing it permanently from June 2. It also added temporary retail price caps on sugar and sunflower oil. The caps on sugar expired on June 1, the ones for sunflower oil are in place until Oct. 1.
But consumer inflation - which includes food as well as other goods and services - has continued to rise in Russia, up 6.5% in June from a year earlier -- it’s fastest rate in five years. The same month, food prices rose 7.9% from the previous year.
Some Russians see the government’s efforts as insufficient. With real wages falling as well as high inflation, the ratings of the ruling United Russia party are languishing at a multi-year low.
Alla Atakyan, a 57-year old pensioner from the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, told Reuters she didn’t think the measures had been sufficient and it was negatively impacting her view of the government. The price of carrots "was 40 roubles($0.5375), then 80 and then 100. How come" the former teacher asked.
Moscow pensioner Galina, who asked she only be identified by her first name, also complained about steep price rises, including of bread. “The miserable help that people have been given is worth almost nothing," the 72-year old said.
When asked by Reuters whether its measures were sufficient, the economy ministry said the government was trying to minimize the administrative measures imposed because too much interference in market mechanisms in general creates risks to business development and may cause product shortages.
Peskov said that "the Kremlin considers government action to curb price rises for a range of agricultural products and foodstuffs to be very effective."
Some Russian farmers say they understand the authorities’ motivation but see the tax as bad news because they believe Russian traders will pay them less for the wheat to compensate for the increased export costs.
An executive at a large farming business in southern Russia said the tax would hurt profitability and mean less money for investment in farming. "It makes sense to reduce production so as not to generate losses and to raise market prices," he said.
Any impact on investment in farming equipment and other materials likely will not become clear until later in the year when the autumn sowing season begins.
The Russian government has invested billions of dollars in the agriculture sector in recent years. That has boosted production, helped Russia import less food, and created jobs.
If farm investment is scaled back, the agricultural revolution that transformed Russia from a net importer of wheat in the late 20th century, may start to draw to an end, farmers and analysts said.
"With the tax we are actually talking about the slow decay of our growth rate, rather than overnight revolutionary damage," said Dmitry Rylko at the Moscow-based IKAR agriculture consultancy. "It will be a long process, it could take three to five years."
Some may see the impact sooner. The farming business executive plus two other farmers told Reuters they planned to reduce their wheat sowing areas in autumn 2021 and in spring 2022.
Russia’s agriculture ministry told Reuters that the sector remains highly profitable and that the transfer of proceeds from the new export tax to farmers would support them and their investment, therefore preventing a decline in production.
The Russian official familiar with the government's food inflation policies said the tax will only deprive farmers of what he called an excessive margin.
"We are in favour of our producers making money on exports. But not to the detriment of their main buyers who live in Russia," Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin told the lower house of parliament in May.
The government measures could also make Russian wheat less competitive, according to traders. They say that is because the tax, which has been changing regularly in recent weeks, makes it harder for them to secure a profitable forward sale where shipments may not take place for several weeks.
That could prompt overseas buyers to look elsewhere, to countries such as Ukraine and India, a trader in Bangladesh told Reuters. Russia has in recent years often been the cheapest supplier for major wheat buyers such as Egypt and Bangladesh.
Sales of Russian wheat to Egypt have been low since Moscow imposed the permanent tax in early June. Egypt purchased 60,000 tonnes of Russian wheat in June. It had bought 120,000 tonnes in February and 290,000 in April.
Prices for Russian grain are still competitive but the country's taxes means the Russian market is less predictable in terms of supply and pricing and may lead to it losing some of its share in export markets generally, said a senior government official in Egypt, the world's top wheat buyer.
($1 = 74.4234 roubles)
(Reporting by Polina Devitt and Darya Korsunskaya; additional reporting by Maria Vasilyeva, Andrew Osborn, Nigel Hunt, Ruma Paul and Nadine Awadalla; editing by Veronica Brown and Cassell Bryan-Low) ((Polina.Devitt@thomsonreuters.com))