'Cheese ring' busted in Moscow

A bulldozer destroying packages with supposed embargoed cheese products at the ground of domestic wastes near Belgorod, Russia, on Aug 6, 2015.
A bulldozer destroying packages with supposed embargoed cheese products at the ground of domestic wastes near Belgorod, Russia, on Aug 6, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

MOSCOW • One of Russia's tabloid TV channels began a news bulletin this week with a breathless report about a major "international criminal gang" freshly rolled up in the Moscow region.

The report included typically jerky shots from an overnight police dragnet - officers in combat fatigues and black balaclavas frisking suspects spread-eagled against vehicles or pinned to the ground.

Ample evidence was on display, too: giant warehouses and transport trucks stacked with the gang's shrink-wrapped contraband.

Heroin? Marijuana? Weapons? No. Cheese.

When the Russian government banned dairy products from nations including the United States and members of the European Union last year in response to Western economic sanctions imposed over Russia's military meddling in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin said the restrictions would create a profitable opportunity for domestic industries.

Instead they appear to have created an opening for forgers and smugglers. The "cheese ring" was busted with an estimated US$30 million (S$42 million) worth of the stuff, nearly 453 tonnes according to the Interior Ministry police.

The cheese was produced locally with Western rennet, an enzyme base used in cheese production that is now banned in Russia.

The "criminal gang" had been peddling its illicit cheese since March, according to police, selling it to supermarket chains and others in Moscow and St Petersburg. Six people will face fraud charges.

The raids were part of a new government effort to make sure that the ban is respected - and a tacit admission that it had been subverted.

The government also opened a hotline on Tuesday, encouraging Russians to snitch on suspected food cheats. It generated more than 50 calls the first day, the prosecutor-general's office announced.

About two weeks ago, tonnes of cheese, fruits and other goods were either burned or buried on the orders of Mr Putin. That prompted some applause but also grumbling that the food should have been donated to the poor since food prices have doubled because of sanctions and the nose-diving value of the rouble.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2015, with the headline ''Cheese ring' busted in Moscow'. Print Edition | Subscribe