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MOSCOW — The Russian government was steamrolling tons of contraband cheese and destroying fruit with tractors Thursday in a public display of its commitment to its one-year-old ban on Western foods.
The move, however, has raised protests in Russia, with people signing a petition urging the government to instead donate the food to the poor suffering through the country's vicious recession.
Coupled with the ruble's sharp depreciation, the ban on Western food has helped drive consumer prices up, pushing an increasing number of Russians below the poverty line.
The Kremlin, hoping to stem the flow of banned products by raising the costs for those involved in contraband, has ignored the public outcry. President Vladimir Putin's order to destroy the food underlines the Kremlin's determination to enforce the ban amid continuing tensions with Europe and the U.S. over the Ukrainian crisis.
The national agricultural oversight agency, Rosselkhznadzor, said several shipments of banned imported products will be destroyed Thursday in the Orenburg region in the Ural Mountains, Belgorod and Smolensk near Russia's Western border and elsewhere.
It took a steamroller about an hour to crush 9 metric tons of contraband cheese in the Belgorod region. Officials in St. Petersburg were preparing to burn 20 metric tons of cheese in incinerators, while authorities in Smolensk will use tractors to destroy some 60 metric tons of peaches and tomatoes.
Russia slapped a ban on many Western agricultural products, including meat, milk products, vegetables and fruit on Aug. 6, 2014 in retaliation for the U.S. and EU sanctions over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian insurgents in Ukraine. Last month, the Kremlin extended the ban for a year following the EU's decision to prolong its sanctions through January.