MOSCOW -- It was a strange spectacle for the evening news: Russian investigators unceremoniously flinging boxes of fatback "presumably from the European Union" into the inferno inside a commercial incinerator.
"The first batch of sanctioned products has been destroyed in Russia," a news anchor said Tuesday evening on state television, announcing that 35 tons of pork had been eradicated under a law signed last week by President Vladimir V. Putin. "The operation to liquidate tens of tons of contraband pork suspected to be from the European Union took place today in Samara region."
To some, the decision to incinerate sanctioned goods smacked of the inquisition. But Russian officials claim that smuggling has decreased tenfold under the tough new regulations.
It marked a fiery new chapter in Russia's sanctions on fruits, vegetables, meats and other foods from the European Union in response to economic sanctions levied over Russia's annexation of Crimea last year. Russia's countersanctions have hurt farmers across Europe, but they've also harmed Russian consumers, who saw double-digit monthly inflation earlier this year.
The economic pain has not prompted political criticism at home, however, and Russians have largely blamed the West for rising costs and the economic slowdown. Domestic opponents of the countersanctions were trivialized as hipsters who feast on jamon and pecorino and are out of touch with the Russian mainstream.
The decision to destroy sanctioned food, which was proposed, drafted into law, and enforced in less than two weeks, recognized a crucial oversight of the sanctions regime: once smugglers had brought sanctioned goods into Russia, it was legal to sell them.
So the Russian market continued to take in sanctioned European goods as smugglers sought to "replace" $9 billion in banned products from Europe alone.
One method of smuggling was to print false labels indicating that foods from Europe were produced elsewhere, spawning jokes about oysters and salmon from Belarus, a landlocked country. Another was to "deliver" sanctioned goods by truck from Belarus to Kazakhstan, a route that crosses through Russia, and then unloads them along the way.
Under the new law, the destruction of sanctioned goods must be photographed and videotaped, lest the food be stolen instead.
Lovers of jamon and pecorino soon had their revenge, flocking to the Internet to lampoon the new policy. One online wit proposed the new coat of arms of the Russian Federal Customs Service be St. George spearing a sausage (instead of the dragon on Moscow's coat of arms).
But there has been serious dissent too: more than 218,000 people have signed a change.org petition to stop destroying the sanctioned goods, saying "if you can eat it, then why destroy it?"
"Why should we destroy food that we can use to feed veterans, pensioners, invalids, those with many children, victims of natural disasters and others in need?" wrote Olga Savelieva, the author of the petition. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's press secretary, told a Russian radio station that he was aware of the petition, though he was suspicious of how quickly it had gathered supporters.
Meanwhile, the agency that oversees the Russian agriculture industry said it would destroy a larger batch of sanctioned goods on Thursday.
"I don't think we're talking about a large amount," said Sergei Dankvert, the head of the agency. "I think that no more than a few hundred tons (of food) will be destroyed. Everyone understands what the situation has driven us to."
"Illegal imports have already decreased by ten times" since the decision was signed into law, he added.