Shaun Walker: Fears of social unrest when harvest fails

Russian view

Friday 27 August 2010 00:00 BST

As prices for buckwheat and other basic foodstuffs rise sharply in Russia after one of the worst droughts in the country's history, the government has warned that it will clamp down on any merchants trying to capitalise on shortages. The authorities, wary of potential social discontent if prices rise too high, have already banned grain exports to protect domestic supplies.

Russia, once the third largest wheat exporter in the world, may actually have to import grain this year to make up for losses in a severe drought, say analysts. The Russian agriculture ministry has denied that this will be required, but the ban on exports enacted this month caused a sharp jump in world wheat prices. Major importers of Russian wheat such as Egypt have been forced to look elsewhere.

The shortage comes after one of the most punishing summers in Russian history, with temperatures well over 35C for over a month. Forest fires raged across western Russia, leaving devastation, as more than 50 people were killed and 2,000 houses destroyed. It has been this terrible human toll of the extreme weather that has preoccupied Russian television broadcasts up to now, as families who lost their homes are promised that new ones will be built.

But the focus is now shifting to the economic damage caused, with at least a quarter of the harvest destroyed. Flour, milk and bread prices have all increased over the past month, but the most dramatic price rises have been for grechka, or buckwheat – a staple of the Russian diet. Russians eat grechka as a porridge for breakfast, or as a side dish with almost anything.

According to the state statistics service, prices for a kilo of grechka have risen by 39 per cent since the start of the year across Russia. In some parts of the country the price hikes have been even more dramatic, with a kilo of grechka in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok doubling in price in the space of a week. The Russian Grain Union said the buckwheat harvest this year is expected to be between 400 and 450 tonnes, compared to 566 tonnes last year and around 1 million tonnes in 2008.

Television channels and internet sites have been filled with news of grechka prices rocketing, causing Russians to stock up on any buckwheat they can get their hands on. In some shops in Moscow and St Petersburg, grechka has completely disappeared from the shelves – a result of a combination of shortages and panic buying. Grechka is one of 24 foodstuffs deemed by Russian law to be of such importance that the state can set prices for them if it sees fit.

Some people even suggested that the grechka shortage could be part of the reason why a recent survey showed that the percentage of people who are "optimistic" about Russia's economic future has fallen sharply over the summer.

"I know at least five people who have been to the supermarket and couldn't find grechka there," said Mikhail Delyagin, a Russian political analyst. "When the drought is over and the grechka returns, even if it's expensive, people's moods will improve."

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