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These countries lined up to help Ukraine. Now their farmers are angry.

For more than a year, Europe has been unexpectedly united in support of Ukraine, but there are signs of discord in the barn of Romanian farmer Robert Vieru, who owns 500 tons of wheat and 250 tons of sunflower seeds, but has lost the Price cuts and unsold Ukrainian races.

A glut of grains and other agricultural products in Ukraine has nearly halved the value of Mr Vieru’s labor and has left farmers in eastern and central Europe — and their governments, most of which face elections this year or next — in a deadlock. The plight of Ukrainian solidarity and unity with Ukraine. own survival.

“I feel sorry for them, but I am heartbroken for myself,” Mr Vieru said of Ukrainians who live near the border in Romania’s Danube Delta, opening the sliding doors of a concrete barn filled with Take last year’s unsold harvest.

Ukraine’s abundance of cheap food has driven prices so low that selling means earning less than what he pays to produce the crop, he said.

Farmers in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria have also encountered Mr Vieru’s plight, the unintended consequence of well-intentioned blunders.

Market forces, fueled by windfall profits, have transformed an ambitious EU effort to help Ukraine export its harvest and alleviate what the United Nations last year called an “unprecedented global hunger crisis” into a politically divisive and economically divisive European Union. source of trouble. The ex-communist east.

The turmoil hasn’t wiped out the strong public support for Ukraine, at least not yet, but it has created an opening for far-right groups pro-Russia, causing serious friction within the European bloc and in a region that was once a Ukrainian bastion. Depression. Mainly, unwavering support for Ukraine. A proposal by the European Commission to compensate farmers with 100 million euros has done little to ease tensions.

With the exception of Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who often courts Russia, the countries hardest hit by the competition are Ukraine’s staunchest European allies. Poland, Romania and Slovakia provided weapons and military training.

However, all five countries have imposed severe restrictions on imports of Ukrainian grain in the past week, with only Romania not banning them outright.

“We are the last man standing,” Romanian Transport Minister Sorin Grindeanu said in an interview.

Meanwhile, Moscow has threatened not to renew its own Black Sea grain deal if the G7 moves to block exports to Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov met with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday to discuss the deal, which expires on May 18 .

When the European bloc announced the removal of tariffs and other barriers on Ukrainian agricultural products last June, the move was welcomed as a bold response to Russia’s blockade and bombing of Ukraine’s main ports in the Black Sea and Sea of ​​Azov. The disruption has raised concerns that countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia could starve if cut off from Ukraine’s breadbasket.

Europe devises an elaborate plan to bypass blocked sea lanes Open up alternative routes from Ukraine, including road, Danube Delta barge and train.

The plan basically worked. It helped millions of tons of Ukrainian grain reach global markets, thereby lowering prices and avoiding starvation in other countries. But the influx of Ukrainian food into nearby countries, such as Romania, itself a major grain producer, has hit local farmers hard. They found themselves locked out of transport hubs, unable to compete with supplies from Ukraine that were not subject to costly restrictions and quality control requirements imposed by the European Union.

“We can’t compete at these prices. Nobody can compete,” said Bogdan Dediu, owner of a family farm in Galati County, Danube. “Of course we want to help Ukraine. But we also have families and children to support.” Unlike Vierou, he sold his crop shortly after last year’s harvest — just before prices took a downward spiral — but he still Sees itself as “collateral damage of the war”.

While prices fell, transport and other costs rose as Ukrainian grain flooded into the main river port in Galati County’s agricultural region. Shipments of Ukrainian grain through the port of Galati increased by more than 90 times last year compared to 2021.

The port handled little Ukrainian grain until the European Union invested 2 million euros in repairing a long-abandoned broad-gauge railway, so that Ukrainian and Moldovan trains using different tracks could transport grain directly.

From there, most of the grain was supposed to be transported by barge via inland waterways to the Black Sea port of Constanta for shipment to Africa and elsewhere.

Much of this seeped into Romania’s domestic market.

Marcela-Daniela Costea, director of the Galatz port, said traders were storing large quantities of grain for weeks or even months in terminal silos controlled by outside companies. “I don’t know what happened to it,” she said.

Florin Ciolacu, executive director of the Romanian Farmers Club, a lobby group, said the country’s farmers had lost 3.5 billion euros since last February because of low prices and high production and transport costs.

Of the EU’s efforts to help Ukraine, he said: “The intention was good, but the result was terrible.” He noted that as much as half of the grain earmarked for transit through Romania under European schemes remained in the country.

By selling Ukrainian grain locally, traders also avoid transport costs and long waits at overloaded ports, increasing profits.

Mr. Vieru, a farmer, cursed the businessmen’s pursuit of profit for ruining his business, but added that he couldn’t really blame them: “If I got honey on my fingers, of course I would lick them,” he said in Romanian. An idiom describing irresistible temptation.

Before the Russian invasion last February, Ukraine had barely shipped any food to Romania. It has shipped 20 million tonnes of cargo there in the past 14 months, according to Transport Minister Mr Grindianu. He said the impact on prices had “created a huge scandal” and left farmers “very angry”.

On April 7, they staged protests across the country, using tractors to block traffic in several cities and border crossings with Ukraine. More work is in progress. Polish farmers also staged demonstrations, prompting the resignation of Poland’s agriculture minister in early April.

In a region of Europe fraught with historical feuds and territorial disputes, the Ukrainian food deluge, if left unchecked, could wash away political dams erected in resentment of Russian aggression.

Earlier this year, after Ukraine announced it had unilaterally dredged a small canal called Bystre in violation of a 1948 agreement, Romanian nationalist politicians, with the help of social media accounts, were sympathetic to Russia and some felt influenced by Russia. The situation under control caused an uproar. The mouth of the Danube, so that ships carrying grain can navigate it.

“We know they’re in a tough place. There’s a war. But the way they’re doing it is not smart,” the transport secretary said.

For Galati port director Ms Kostya, the dredging not only shows “disrespect” but also hurts business. It helped open a Danube waterway previously impassable to many ships, diverting traffic and revenue from Galati to the Ukrainian-controlled river port.

“They’re living a nightmare there. It’s palpable,” Ms Costea said. But, she added, Romania also has interests that need to be considered. “Everyone is just interested in increasing their own profits,” she said.

Poland, Romania, and Slovakia have not given up arming the war on Russia, but domestic political and economic interests (often at odds with those of Ukraine) are asserting their own as elections near in all three countries.

“We have to help Ukraine until Russia is defeated. It’s non-negotiable,” the transport minister said. “But we also have to help our own people” — and prevent radical nationalists from exploiting discontent ahead of next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections, he added. “If nationalists have room to speculate, they will increase their support.”

The European Union’s executive body, the Commission, has this week proposed what would amount to a ban, albeit temporarily, in a bid to calm sentiment and roll back what it denounced as an “illegal” unilateral ban on imports of Ukrainian grain to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria. , its.

Complaining that it was turning a blind eye to the impact, the commission insisted “it is well aware that there are tensions in the farming community” and offered 100 million euros to compensate farmers, warning that only Russia could benefit from their anger.

But with this year’s sunflower and corn planting season about to begin, and with most of last year’s harvest still unsold, farmers are getting desperate.

On a large farm run by the family-owned Dorin Group in Galatz County, hangers that are usually empty this time of year are now filled with 1,000 tons of unsold corn. Storing large amounts of grain for the winter won’t pose a serious problem, but that can quickly change when temperatures rise and insects arrive.

Gabriela Buruiana, the farm’s commercial director, said that in the past, traders “used to call every day” asking if she had grain to sell, “but this year no one called.”

“They get all the food they need from Ukraine at very low prices,” she said. “They were silent.”

Delia Marinescu contributed reporting from Bucharest.

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