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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Annals of Wealthy, Successful Russia

Blogger Paul Goble reports:

Dramatically rising prices for bread – up more than 10 percent this month alone -- have led some officials in the northern capital to think about issuing food stamps for the city’s poor or even ration cards to ensure that everyone there will be able to purchase this basic staple, according to a member of the local legislature.

In comments to the news agency yesterday, Yuriy Rakov, the first deputy chairman of that body’s Committee on Economic Development, Industrial Policy and Trade, said that “in the immediate future, the introduction of ration cards in Petersburg is possible”

But as soon as he said that and indicated that city officials, including Governor Valentina Matvienko, were considering what to do about the rising price of bread, Rakov backed off, saying that “this sounds bad. Perhaps [what he should have said is the introduction of] food stamps like in the United States for less well-off families.”

The reasons for increases in the price of bread are not far to seek: Ukraine stopped exporting grain to the Russian Federation this year. Russian production is stagnant. And processing costs are up. But the kind of step Rakov is talking about highlights just how unequally Russia’s recent economic gains have been distributed.

His remarks are especially striking because they come less than a week after the Public Opinion Foundation published the results of a recent poll on hunger in Russia, who has experienced it and who has not, and when Russians feel hunger was most prevalent in their past.

Only 10 percent of the sample said that they had ever had to go hungry in recent times, compared with 67 percent who said they had never had to do so. But an increasing share said that they feared there could be food shortages in the future – 62 percent this year as compared to 55 percent last.

At the same time, however, many recalled hungry times in the past – during and after the second world war, in the course of collectivization, or even earlier. And 30 percent of those who said they had not personally suffered in this way indicated that members of their families – presumably from older age groups – had.

These results at the very least suggest that the fear of hunger remains a real one for many Russians even though few are suffering from it now. Rakov’s comments will do nothing to calm these fears; instead, they almost certainly will generate new concerns not only in St. Petersburg but elsewhere in the Russian Federation as well.

UPDATE ON JULY 11: The suggestion that St. Petersburg might introduce bread rationing or food stamps of one kind or another proved so explosive that the city government within a few hours of the report not only denied it but said it was appealing to the central Russian government to help it cope with rising prices for grain and bread.

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