Latvian Sprats Declared Fish Non Grata

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov only had to ask that city grocers stop selling Latvian products and it was done.

Sprats, the little fish in the black cans with gold lettering that are loved by many Russians, have all but disappeared from shops in central Moscow.

While President Boris Yeltsin's government threatened late last week to reduce oil exports through Latvia's port and warned of other possible economic sanctions to protest Latvia's treatment of its large ethnic Russian population, Luzhkov was already a step ahead.

One of the first to call for sanctions, the mayor urged Muscovites last Tuesday not to buy Latvian goods and urged vendors to stop stocking Latvian products.

The traders sprang into action immediately.

"We did not force them to do it," said Georgy Trenin, spokesman for the central district administration. "All our entrepreneurs showed their own willingness to support the mayor's call."

Vladimir Karnaukhov, the general director of the Seventh Continent supermarket chain, said his store managers looked through their shelves and removed all Latvian-made products, mainly canned sprats and breakfast cereals.

So when traders met with officials of the central district administration last Thursday, they were ready for the question of how they could respond to the mayor's request.

"We declared that we have refused to accept Latvian-produced sprats," Karnaukhov said.

Karnaukhov, speaking Monday in a telephone interview, said Seventh Continent is trying to replace the Latvian sprats with some canned in Russia's Kaliningrad region.

His chain is among about 20 large traders and an unspecified number of smaller ones who have joined the boycott of Latvian goods. The list includes all major food markets in central Moscow and the shopping centers GUM, TsUM, and Detsky Mir.

Some smaller shops, too, did not need to be reminded twice.

"We have not received any official requests from the city, but reading about the boycott in the papers we decided to withdraw the goods, mostly canned fish, just in case," said the director of a grocery shop near Savyolovsky Station.

The director said she does not think that removing sprats can have any serious effect on the quality of life of Russians in Latvia. "I think that some stricter measures could have an effect, but we just removed goods that are profitable for us and well liked by Muscovites," she said, speaking on condition her name not be given.

City officials also managed to close down the only shop specializing in Latvian products.

The Dayna shop in Chistiye Prudy was shut down by city inspectors who came Thursday, shop director Marina Polyakova said.

"They found that 15 storage boxes were kept in the wrong place and that three sales assistants had not had the lung X-rays required for their jobs handling food," Polyakova said.

Polyakova, however, insisted that she did not suspect any connection between Luzhkov's call for the boycott and the shop's temporary closure for violations of rarely-checked regulations.

"But I think that if one were to affect the situation in Latvia, it should be through civilized measures on the federal level, such as an increase of customs duties. And even then, as far as I can tell, it would only put an extra burden on the shoulders of Russians who live in Latvia," Polyakova said.

The embargo on Latvian goods, however, seemed to be limited to the borders of the Central District.

Elsewhere in Moscow, Latvian goods -- mostly sprats and dairy products -- were still shining in shop windows.

"Yeah, we have heard some buzz, but we leave it up to the vendors to decide what they want to sell," said an administrator of the Petrovsko-Razumovsky wholesale food market in northern Moscow.

And so the black cans with gold lettering were displayed in almost every shop window of the market.

"It is so silly. My family just loves them. We serve them for guests and eat them just for our own enjoyment. I don't believe that if I stop eating sprats, Russians in Latvia will have a better life," said Marina Konyukhova, a housewife, as she purchased a couple of cans at the market.

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