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Russia Moves to Ban Parmesan Cheese as Black Smoke Billows Over Kiev Again

Food has again become caught up in the political battlefield in Russia, while Kiev protesters fight to keep their Maiden camp alive.

by Harriet Salem
Aug 7 2014, 10:08pm

Photo by Konstantin Chernichkin

Plumes of black smoke once again billowed over Kiev’s Independence Square this morning and metro stations were closed, as the last of the anti-government demonstrators camped out there made fires and built new barricades in a bid to stop the remnants of their tent city from being cleared by local authority workers.

Men clad in masks and balaclavas, who identified themselves as the “self-defense” of Maidan, set piles of tires and trucks ablaze as tensions flared today in the capital. “Death to the enemies. Death to these pigs,” yelled a 40-something man in military fatigues, as he confronted local citizens frustrated by the protesters' continued presence on the central square.

Small-scale skirmishes and crime have plagued the area around the protest camp in recent weeks, and public anger against the straggler demonstrators his risen following the election of a new government and the outbreak of war in the country’s east.

“Maidan should stand but not in this way, we need to remove all the mess and alcoholics from here,” 46-year-old Aleksandr, an onlooker, told VICE News. “They just sit here in tents and don’t do anything. We as Kievans shouldn’t allow them this, it is betrayal of what we stood here for.”

Most of the thousands of protesters who camped out in the square at the peak of the revolution that toppled pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych in February packed up and went home, either before or shortly after presidential elections were held in May.

Today former-boxer Vitali Klitschko, appointed as mayor of Kiev by the new government, denounced the actions of the demonstrators today as “criminal.”

“Attacks, shootouts, explosions, and taking over of businesses… This is a total desecration of the Maidan to which Ukrainians came in autumn,” said the politician, who played an instrumental role in anti-government protests during the winter, on the website of his party UDAR — the acronym means "punch" in Ukrainian.

In Photos: Kiev’s Euromaidan Burns Again as Authorities Move to Clear Protest Site

Meanwhile, fighting continues to rage in the east as the Kiev-backed anti-terror operation (ATO), aimed at ousting the pro-Russia rebels who seized large swathes of land in mid-April, advances on the rebel stronghold in Donetsk.

Today, in the early hours of the morning, shells hit a hospital in the center of the city with a pre-war population of one million. At least one person was reportedly killed in the attack and several more injured.

Although the operation is far from over, in the last month the ATO has gained momentum rapidly after getting off to a faltering start in mid-April.

This is due in a large part to the actions of Ukraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko — nicknamed the “Chocolate King” because of his substantial investments in the confectionary industry — who introduced mass conscription in a bid to bolster the number of soldiers in Ukraine’s beleaguered army, and moved to legalize privately funded battalions of “patriotic volunteers.”

Yet despite the victories, the prudence of the new president legitimizing the arming of militia groups — many of which are funded by Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs — to fight on behalf of the state, is up for debate.

"Certainly some politicians are questioning exactly what will happen to these battalions once the operation in the east is complete. The concern is that they will serve as the private armies of various oligarchs that are financing them, including [Serhiy] Taruta, and that this will have long-term repercussions for the state," Taras Berezovets Director of Berta Communications and a Kiev-based political analyst, told VICE News.

The gains in eastern Ukraine have also come at a huge social cost. According to the latest UN figures, more than 1,100 civilians have been killed since fighting broke out in mid-April. At least a further 230,000 people have fled the region. Many of those who remain face an acute humanitarian crisis, as destroyed infrastructure has caused electricity and water to be shut off in several areas near the fighting.

As battles on the ground continue today, the complimentary economic war between east and west also stepped up a notch, as Moscow announced a near wholesale ban on food imports from the European Union, Canada, Australia, and Norway.

According to Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the far-reaching prohibition will include vegetables, meat, fish, milk, and dairy products.

The ban is the latest in a tit-for-tat economic battle. Earlier this week Kiev’s western allies — who accuse the Kremlin of augmenting unrest in Ukraine’s east and supplying weapons and fighters to the rebels operating in the area —approved sanctions targeting Russia’s banking, defense, and energy sectors.

Russia’s Agriculture Minister Nikolai Fyodorov has said that the country will fill the food gap created by the new prohibitions on imports by increasing orders from Brazil and New Zealand. Furthermore, he added, talks are already underway with Moscow’s traditional allies Belarus and Kazakhstan to expand the ban to two more countries.

Food has already been caught up in the political battlefield. In January, Russia halted the import of all EU-produced pork into the country, closing down 25 percent of the economic block’s total market for pig meat. Last week Moscow moved early on Polish fruit and vegetables, banning them for supposedly “sanitary reasons.” Iconic US fast food chain McDonald’s has also come under scrutiny — its cheeseburgers and milkshakes are currently under investigation by a regional branch of consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzor.

But experts say that Russia’s plan, which is set to last for at least one year, may backfire if the country is unable to negotiate a relaxation of western sanctions and sees rising inflation and deepening economic depression.

“He’s taken away exactly what matters to the Russian middle class — the parmesan, ricotta, the French wine — the essence of the middle class dinner party,” Ben Judah, a political analyst of Russia and the post-Soviet space, tells VICE News.

“Putin’s approval rates are directly linked to the country’s prosperity, he adds. "This war spike in his ratings won’t last very long, and if troubled times are ahead he may find himself without the support of the oligarchs and middle class, which in the past he has depended on."

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette here.

Ludmila Makarova contributed to this report.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem