Facing Fury Over Antigay Law, Stoli Says 'Russian? Not Really'

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RIGA, Latvia -- When a number of prominent Americans, outraged by what they saw as a rising tide of state-sponsored homophobia in Russia, called for a boycott of Stolichnaya vodka this summer, they had no more eager ally against Moscow than Kaspars Zalitis, a gay rights advocate here in Latvia, a Baltic nation with a long and painful experience with Russia's oppression of minorities.

Then came an awkward surprise: Stolichnaya, Mr. Zalitis discovered, is made not in Russia but here in his hometown, the capital of Latvia, which broke free of Russian subjugation more than two decades ago. "I always thought it was Russian," he said.

Boycotts have long been a blunt and contentious instrument of protest. But efforts to pressure Russia's abstemious president, Vladimir V. Putin, into dropping a new law outlawing "homosexual propaganda" by getting Americans to dump vodka have provided particularly fertile ground for complaints of good intentions gone awry.

"They thought Stoli was an easy target," said Stuart Milk, a gay activist and the nephew of Harvey Milk, the murdered California gay rights pioneer.

Promoted by influential gay Americans like the writer Dan Savage and the group Queer Nation, the vodka boycott had "good intentions," Mr. Milk said. But he said he knew from previous work in the Baltics for his organization, the Harvey Milk Foundation, that Stolichnaya had a large Latvian work force. He decided that boycotting the vodka was "misguided" as it would only hurt a company and a country that are at odds with the Kremlin.

Stolichnaya has contributed to the confusion, for decades promoting itself as Russian vodka on the label and going so far as to proclaim itself the "mother of all vodkas from the motherland of vodka" in a 2006 advertising campaign. The Russia link was later dumped, with labels changed in 2010 to read simply "premium vodka," but by then its Russian identity had been established.

The exact nationality of Stolichnaya, like many global brands, is hard to pin down. It was made for a time in Russia and simply bottled in Riga but has in recent years been filtered and blended in Latvia. Yet while its water comes from Latvian springs, its main ingredient, raw alcohol distilled from grain, still comes from Russia. Its bottles are from Poland and Estonia, its caps from Italy.

All of the roughly 100,000 bottles of Stolichnaya produced each day for sale in the United States and elsewhere, aside from in Russia, come from a factory here in Riga operated by Latvijas Balzams, a century-old enterprise that ranks as one of the country's biggest taxpayers and employers.

Its principal owner, Yury Shefler, was born and raised in Russia. But accused by Moscow of stealing the Stolichnaya name from the Russian state in the chaotic 1990s, he risks arrest in Russia and has not been there for more than a decade.

The company that controls the brand, the Luxembourg-based SPI Group, is also owned by Mr. Shefler, who declined to be interviewed about the boycott of his best-known product. SPI has mounted a vigorous public campaign to show that it is not Russian, does not share the Kremlin's take on homosexuality and is, as it asserted in a July statement, a "fervent supporter and friend" of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

To that end, the company's Latvia office has been badgering the bigger of Riga's gay bars -- there are only two -- to start stocking Stolichnaya. Anatolijs Skangalis, the manager of the bar, Golden, said he did not sell the vodka, simply because he preferred other brands, like Russian Standard. It has nothing to do with the American-led boycott, he says, which he ridiculed as a "dirty brand war" that has nothing to do with gay rights.

Stolichnaya, said Val Mendeleev, SPI Group's Russian-born chief executive, is no more a proxy for the Russian state than Google, whose co-founder Sergey Brin was born in Moscow. "People say Stoli is owned by a rich Russian, but Sergey Brin is an even richer Russian," Mr. Mendeleev said.

SPI Group, he said, is "not trying to hide" its Russian roots -- Stolichnaya's formula, basic ingredients and name, which means capital, all come from Russia -- but the company wants to make clear that it is anything but an ally of the Kremlin and that "you will not hurt Russia by dumping Stoli."

In any event, the Riga Stolichnaya factory says its vodka business, 60 percent of which is in the United States, has not yet been hurt by the boycott, despite reports that a number of bars from New York to San Francisco have started taking the drink off their shelves. It can take several weeks for a collapse of sales to work its way into the production end.

Mr. Zalitis, for one, is hoping it all blows over. "If the boycott works, Latvians will lose their jobs. Who are they going to blame? Putin? No, they are going to blame gays," said Mr. Zalitis, who issued an open letter last month protesting the boycott on behalf of Mozaika, Latvia's only gay rights lobby group.

Gay men and lesbians face discrimination not just in Russia but across much of Eastern and Central Europe. Nationalist rabble-rousers frequently single them out, along with Roma, for verbal and sometimes physical attack, accusing them of subverting traditional values in the service of decadent foreign forces, notably the European Union. The bloc requires that Latvia, which joined in 2004, and all other 27 member states have laws banning all forms of discrimination.

When Latvia held its first gay pride march in 2005, protesters hurled stones at the marchers while politicians denounced the event as a national shame. "The hatred was dreadful," said Juris Calitis, an Anglican and former Lutheran priest in Riga. In 2006, Mr. Calitis was pelted with animal excrement after he held a church service for people attending Latvia's second gay pride event. The Latvian Lutheran church then expelled him from its clergy.

But, according to Mr. Calitis and gay advocates here, the climate has since mellowed considerably. "These are the growing pains of a provincial place that is still trying to shake off the ugly words and ways of the Soviet Union," he said.

Queer Nation, a group in the forefront of the vodka boycott, recently widened its anti-Russia activities to focus on soft drinks, too. Last month it staged a protest against Coca-Cola in New York, smashing cans and pouring Coke down drains to protest the Atlanta-based company's sponsorship of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi.

But when Mr. Zalitis wrote an open letter suggesting that Americans behind the vodka boycott reconsider their "Dump Stoli" campaign, Queer Nation fired off a tart response. The boycott, the group wrote back, is aimed at all Russian vodkas, and "because Stolichnaya is a Russian vodka that is made by a Russian company, it is also an appropriate target."

In response to Mr. Zalitis's complaints that Stolichnaya is actually made in Latvia, Queer Nation said curtly that the brand "is not a Latvian vodka" because the grain used to make it all comes from Russia and because SPI, Mr. Shefler's drinks conglomerate, "has offices and operations in Russia."

Mr. Mendeleev, SPI's chief executive, acknowledged that the company has an office in Moscow, but with only around 10 employees. The company also grows grain and operates a distillery in the Russian region of Tambov to produce raw alcohol for shipment to the vodka plant in Riga. Together, there are about 600 employees in Russia, Mr. Mendeleev said, and 900 or so working in Latvia.

Mr. Calitis, the priest defrocked by Latvian Lutherans, said that he did not know whether singling out Stolichnaya would help or hurt gay rights but that he was nonetheless "all in favor of boycotting vodka" regardless of its nationality.

Active for years helping orphaned children and the hungry, he has seen the ravages of alcohol. "If vodka were boycotted here in Latvia, it would be a great day," he said.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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