Food as Political Power in Putin’s Russia

Food as Political Power in Putin’s Russia
28th July 2022 admin_bfhu

Recent headlines of a deal between Russia and Ukraine on the export of Ukrainian grain have focused attention on the vital role of these key providers in global food markets. A timely paper by Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) researchers on the political role of food in Putin’s Russia presents a detailed analysis of Kremlin policies on food security from a historico-political perspective.  It shows how Putin’s determination to develop Russian agriculture has, at the moment, paid off – not only by protecting Russia from threats of food sanctions but also by providing political control over the countries dependent on Russian grain imports. The paper was published in the recent issue of the Journal of Democracy.

The authors, Professor Yitzhak Brudny and two former doctoral students Dr. Janetta Azarieva and Prof. Eugen Finkel, present in this paper, “Bread and Autocracy in Putin’s Russia,” an overview of Putin’s policies of nutritional self-sufficiency that now enable Russia to use food as both a shield and a weapon.  A book of the same title will be published by Oxford University Press.

This paper provides an important perspective for understanding global politics. As Prof Brudny explained, “It highlights the importance of food independence for authoritarian regimes…We take food for granted but non-democratic countries can only survive if they keep prices down.” And that is problematic in closed markets without competition.

The paper charts how every major development in Russian and Soviet history since the 1917 revolution has either been driven by or closely associated with the availability of food. Indeed, it explains, how food scarcity in the USSR during the 1980s doomed President Mikhail Gorbachev’s plans to revitalize communism.  It also shows that in 1992, Putin, as the vice-mayor of St Petersburg was committed to a policy of food security for the city.  The plan was a disaster but as soon as Putin became president in 2000, he embarked on a path of securing Russia’s food independence from imports. The success of his policies owing much to the skills and professional expertise of the Minister of Agriculture (1999-2009) Aleksei Gordeev.

But total self-sufficiency brings its own problems. The system is vulnerable, explained Azarieva, “A few agro-industrial companies, controlled by the state, in turn, monopolize food production in Russia … the lack of competition results in price rises.” Putin has responded, she said, by increasing salaries and social welfare payments – all funded by Russia’s considerable gas and oil revenues.

However, the country’s revenues from grain exports have diminished – even though the West has not imposed sanctions on food from entering or leaving Russia. There is no point in sanctioning food imports when a country is self-sufficient, noted Azarieva.  However, sanctions on banks do impact the international network required to keep Russian exports flowing.  Further, silos are not emptying fast enough to provide storage for the next bumper harvest.  Countries of the former Soviet Republics anxiously await supplies, as does Turkey, and countries in North Africa and further afield. It is a complex interdependent web. This paper helps clarify and contextualize many of these complexities.

CITATION: Azarieva, J., Y. Brudny, and E. Finkel. “Bread and Autocracy in Putin’s Russia”. Journal of Democracy, vol. 33, no. 3, July 2022, pp. 100–14.