Russia shaken, stirred by vodka wars

By Time of article published Sep 11, 2000

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A vodka war is raging in Russia, with competitors being slain by hitmen, hundreds of thousands of bottles seized by police and more than 20 000 people dead since January after drinking bootleg liquor.

The "kings of vodka" are locked in a pitiless struggle to conquer a market worth about R85-million, split equally between the legal and the black markets, according to experts quoted by the daily Kommersant and the weekly Profil.

Sergei Kolesnikov, a member of the Smolensk regional assembly in the west and owner of a big vodka plant, was shot dead with his driver in July, the victim of killers hired by a group controlling the local bootleg market.

Ten days earlier Valery Mironov, one of the main vodka suppliers in the Moscow region, had been riddled with eight pistol bullets in a suburb of the capital.

In Moscow itself the methods used are scarcely less ferocious: two top men at Russia's leading vodka manufacturer Kristal are battling for the leadership through bomb scares, intervention by armed groups and mutual threats.

In 1999, vodka production in Russia totalled 1,34 billion litres, up 60 percent from the previous year. But this already impressive figure only represented half the real production, with the rest coming from clandestine distilleries.

While small producers stay faithful to the old methods, hiding stills in the countryside, most of the bootleggers operate on an industrial scale.

In April, police discovered a clandestine distillery run by two Chechens near Moscow. The enterprise operated around the clock employing 120 workers, all Chechens, and produced 10 000 bottles of vodka a day - bringing in millions of rand in profits within just a few months.

In June near Moscow police seized a warehouse containing no less than 150 000 bottles of illicit vodka, while their colleagues in the southern region of Stavropol intercepted trucks carrying 100 000 bottles of hooch.

One month earlier, 220 000 litres of 96-proof alcohol heading for an illegal distillery were seized in Saint Petersburg.

According to the interior ministry, 25 million litres of vodka was seized in 1999 and 4 700 distilleries were found in the most unlikely places: strategic military units, garages, peaceful retirement homes or plush country residences - like the one belonging to a Volgograd "godfather" whose cellars concealed 26 000-litre vats.

This contraband vodka is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people every year. The number of deaths from adulterated liquor went up by 47 percent over the first six months of this year and is already approaching 24 000, the figure for the whole of 1999, according to Gennady Kulik, a member of parliament.

Bootleg vodka often contains industrial alcohol or other surprising ingredients. In April, one trafficker arrested near Moscow admitted that he made his vodka with Fialka, an alcohol product used to clean windows.

Even in the time of the Soviet Union with its police state, the authorities never managed to tame the vodka linchpins.

Today, a bottle of vodka costs around 60 rubles (about R15) in the shops, or half that if it is "illegal"... ample reason for the private stills and the clandestine distilleries to continue working overtime in Russia. - Sapa-AFP

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