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MOSCOW: During a televised session with ordinary Russians last month, a woman pressed President Vladimir Putin on high food prices.

Valentina Sleptsova challenged the president on why bananas from Ecuador are now cheaper in Russia than domestically-produced carrots and asked how her mother can survive on a "subsistence wage" with the cost of staples like potatoes so high, according to a recording of the annual event.

Putin acknowledged high food costs were a problem, including with "the so-called borsch basket" of basic vegetables, blaming global price increases and domestic shortages. But he said the Russian government had taken steps to address the issue and that other measures were being discussed, without elaborating.

Sleptsova represents a problem for Putin, who relies on broad public consent. The steep increases in consumer prices are unsettling some voters, particularly older Russians on small pensions who do not want to see a return to the 1990s when sky-rocketing inflation led to food shortages.

That has prompted Putin to push the government to take steps to tackle inflation. The government's steps have included a tax on wheat exports, which was introduced last month on a permanent basis, and capping the retail price on other basic foodstuffs.

But in doing so, the president faces a tough choice: in trying to head off discontent among voters at rising prices he risks hurting Russia's agricultural sector, with the country's farmers complaining the new taxes are discouraging them from making long-term investments.

The moves by Russia, the world's top wheat exporter, also have fed inflation in other countries by driving up the cost of grain. An increase in the export tax unveiled in mid-January, for example, sent global prices to their highest levels in seven years.

Putin faces no immediate political threat ahead of parliamentary elections in September after Russian authorities carried out a sweeping crackdown on opponents linked to jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Navalny's allies have been prevented from running in the elections and are trying to persuade people to vote tactically for anyone apart from the ruling pro-Putin party even though the other main parties in contention all support the Kremlin on most major policy issues.

However, food prices are politically sensitive and containing rises to keep people broadly satisfied is part of Putin's longstanding core strategy.

"If the price of cars goes up only a small number of people notice," said a Russian official familiar with the government's food inflation policies. "But when you buy food that you buy every day, it makes you feel like overall inflation is going up dramatically, even if it is not."

In response to Reuters' questions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the president was opposed to situations where the price of domestically produced products "are rising unreasonably."

Peskov said that had nothing to do with the elections or mood of voters, adding it had been a constant priority for the president even prior to the run up to elections. He added that it was up to the government to choose which methods to combat inflation and that it was responding both to seasonal price fluctuations and global market conditions, which have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Russia's economy ministry said that the measures imposed since the start of 2021 have helped to stabilise food prices. Sugar prices are up 3% so far this year after 65% growth in 2020 and bread prices are up 3% after 7.8% growth in 2020, it said.

Sleptsova, who state television identified as from the city of Lipetsk in central Russia, didn't respond to a request for comment.

'MISERABLE HELP'

Consumer inflation in Russia has been rising since early 2020, reflecting a global trend during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Russian government responded in December after Putin publicly criticised it for being slow to react. It set a temporary tax on wheat exports from mid-February, before imposing it permanently from June 2. It also added temporary retail price caps on sugar and sunflower oil. The caps on sugar expired on June 1, the ones for sunflower oil are in place until Oct. 1.

But consumer inflation - which includes food as well as other goods and services - has continued to rise in Russia, up 6.5% in June from a year earlier - it's fastest rate in five years. The same month, food prices rose 7.9% from the previous year.

Some Russians see the government's efforts as insufficient. With real wages falling as well as high inflation, the ratings of the ruling United Russia party are languishing at a multi-year low.

Alla Atakyan, a 57-year old pensioner from the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, told Reuters she didn't think the measures had been sufficient and it was negatively impacting her view of the government.

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