Latvian gay campaigners claim "Russian" vodka boycott off target

By bne IntelliNews August 5, 2013

Tim Gosling in Prague -

Latvian gay rights groups on August 1 called on US counterparts to drop a boycott of Stolichnaya vodka, claiming they've got their geography wrong.

With Russia's draconian laws against homosexual "propaganda" the target, gay rights groups in the US are running a spreading campaign to stop bars serving Stolichnaya, with publicity stunts including pouring the vodka into the gutter. However, Latvian gay rights group Mozaika has joined forces with SPI Group - the Luxembourg-based company that owns the brand - to point out the famous tipple is these days made in Latvia, not Russia.

Although one of the most widely recognized "Russian" vodka brands, Stolichnaya is actually produced by Latvijas Balzams, the pair sought to make clear in a press release. Nearly 90% owned by Luxembourg-based SPI Group, Latvijas Balzams is described as employing 600 and being one of Latvia's largest exporters.

That doesn't of course prevent SPI claiming on its website that: "Today we are the biggest exporter of Russian vodka in the world - and one of the most successful groups in our home country." At the same time, it insists that ingredients for the vodka are sourced in Russia, while the label on the bottle features a picture of a famous Moscow landmark - the recently re-built Moskva Hotel.

Still, Mozaika complained in a statement that the action is misdirected. "This campaign will only harm Latvia, Latvia's economy and employees of the company Latvijas Balzams."

"Latvia was under Soviet occupation for over 50 years," Mozaika board member Kaspars Zalitis wrote in a post on the group's Facebook page, lamenting that many foreigners still mistakenly consider the small Baltic nation to be part of Russia, according to the LA Times. "Latvia is a proud member of the European Union and is striving to be an open, democratic country. We would kindly ask you to reconsider your actions in regards to 'Dump Stoli! Dump Russian Vodka!' as this campaign will only harm Latvia, Latvia's economy and employees of the company Latvijas Balzams."

On August 2, SPI said it is "very optimistic" that there would be a breakthrough in talks with the activists advocating the boycott. "We have been active in setting the records straight - that we stand on the same side and that we hate to be associated with the attitude and actions of the Russian government on this issue," the company told AP in an email.

However, US gay rights campaigner Queer Nation contended to AP that SPI remains an appropriate target for a boycott. "Though the company claims to be friend to our community, it was silent as the Russian government considered this horrific law, and it said nothing after the law was enacted," it said in a statement. "Stolichnaya only spoke up after the boycott was announced."

SPI is controlled by Yury Shefler, a Russian-born billionaire who left the country a decade ago. The press release claims his exile began after he fell out with the Kremlin over his support of opposition political parties, and his opposition to just the kind of official prejudice exhibited in the new law targeting gays.

Indeed, Shefler left Russia in 2002. However, his flight also came in the midst of a tussle that's still ongoing with the state over SPI's rights to 43 vodka brands, including Stolichnaya. With the state claiming the trademarks were acquired illegally - as many assets were in the 1990s - the reputed billionaire was charged with threatening to kill a former deputy agriculture minister who led Moscow's crusade.

Russia continues to fight SPI for the Stolichnaya trademark. In July 2012, the Court of Appeals at The Hague confirmed that Shefler did not operate in good faith in obtaining the trademarks, and ruled that the rights to the brands Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya belong to the Russian Federation. SPI is reported to be appealing the finding.

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