Moscow | Reuters — An entrepreneur has found a way to supply Italian parmesan, Dutch Gouda and British Cheddar to cheese connoisseurs in Russia, sidestepping a ban on importing European food that the Kremlin imposed in the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine.
Russia’s government banned wholesale imports of fresh food products from the European Union, Canada, the U.S. and certain other countries in 2014, in retaliation for Western states imposing sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Suren Matevosyan, a Russian-educated lawyer, set up a company that takes orders for cheese online from Russian customers, then sends their purchases to them in the post.
It is legal because the online shop is in Germany, outside Russian jurisdiction, and individuals have a personal allowance of up to five kg of foodstuffs that they can bring in without being subject to import restrictions.
“Just yesterday we were talking to South Tyrol cheese makers,” said Matevosyan. “When they first hear ‘Russia,’ they say ‘What? Russia? But there’s a ban!’ Then I explain the scheme and I can hear how their eyes begin to shine and they say ‘Yes, yes, yes, I’ll send you my proposal now.'”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has presented the embargo on European foodstuffs as a matter of national pride and a demonstration that domestic producers can meet the needs of Russian consumers without the need for foreign imports.
But in reality, the impact of the embargo has been softened because there are ways of sidestepping it — at least for those consumers with deep pockets.
A high-end Moscow restaurant in the ground floor of a building that also houses a government agency has on its menu an item called “Forbidden cheeses.” Asked what they were, a waiter said they were on the banned list.
A supermarket on the same street stocks Parma ham from Italy, and foie gras pate from France, complete with prominent labels giving their country of origin. The prices are out of the reach of the average Russian.
The embargo is so leaky that a senior Russian official, whose job includes helping to enforce it, made a joke at an off-the-record briefing with journalists about the fact that banned products were available in expensive Moscow restaurants.
To get round the ban, products may be repackaged in neighbouring countries to disguise their origin, trucks in transit through Russia may secretly unload some cargo, and imported food can be documented as something else.
Tatiana, 36, a manager at an international company in Moscow, says Russian cheese tastes of “modelling clay” and she prefers cheese from abroad.
“I buy it because it tastes of cheese, not fat. Most of the Russian cheese I’ve tried does not taste like cheese,” she said.
Yevgeny Kuklin, 40, a lover of French cheese, also dismissed the local product: “Sanctions have complicated life. There is not much cheese and it’s mostly no good,” he said.
‘Filling a cheese hole’
Matevosyan lives in the German city of Hamburg and his main line of work is importing professional musical equipment into Russia.
But he spotted a new business opportunity when, in December last year, the Russian government clarified that Russians could order a limited amount of cheese and other banned products in foreign internet shops for personal use.
“We were making jokes but at some point everyone got serious. Twenty minutes after, we had a plan and a week after we started to sell,” Matevosyan, 28, told Reuters.
“I think we are lucky to have picked the right niche where there was a vacuum… We are just filling a cheese hole,” he said.
The niche has proved wider than he initially thought. Before the ban, imports accounted for half of all the cheese sold in Russia and the bulk of those imports came from countries now on the sanctions list.
Matevosyan said his shop, which sells cheese produced by small farms in Germany, France, Italy, Britain and the Netherlands, was initially aimed at middle-class consumers and he expected the average bill to be around 40 euros (about C$60).
But people spend on average 80 to 100 euros per visit to the site, Chillcheese.ru, and Matevosyan said his customers include government officials, bankers, and top managers.
The shop currently handles on average five orders per day, earning 10 to 15 euros profit from each kilogram.
“We are not making huge volumes, we are not taking clients from import substitutes… We serve the segment which would not have gone for a Russian camembert anyway.”
To stay within the law, the shop rejects orders from restaurants and has hired a detective agency to make sure enterprises are not buying secretly on the website.
However, Matevosyan said his business does not hinge on sanctions staying in place.
“The lifting of sanctions would open the door for expansion… It will be a signal for us that we should make a foray into this market, open stores… At some point we will start getting ready for it,” he added.
— Reporting for Reuters by Maria Kiselyova and Olga Popova.