Katactpodpa!* (*Catastrophe!): Russians run out of booze

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Buying a bottle of whisky in Moscow has become mission impossible. Shelves once full of imported wine, increasingly popular in the booming capital, have been swept clear. Could vodka, Russia's national drink, be next?

Famed for their hard drinking, Russians are facing the country's most serious alcohol shortage in 20 years. Not since Mikhail Gorbachev, then Soviet president, tried to crack down on alcoholism by curbing vodka sales has there been such a crisis.

This time the drought is not the result of an anti-alcohol campaign, but of a bureaucratic bungle worthy of the most benighted Communist official. The aim was to stamp out fraudulently labelled bootleg alcohol, which can poison or even kill the unlucky consumer, but far-reaching measures against counterfeiting have had all kinds of unforeseen effects.

A date that has come to be known as "Black Saturday", 1 July, was the deadline for introducing new barcoded excise labels for all imported alcohol, and for including them in a new electronic database and tracking system. But nobody, from the Federal Customs Service to alcohol producers and off-licence operators, appears to have been prepared.

In the tradition of Soviet absurdism, most retailers were not issued with the new excise labels. The result was that they had to sell off all their foreign wines and spirits at bargain prices before the end of June, or simply send the booze back to the warehouse. Apart from vodka, almost all wines and spirits that are fit to drink come from outside Russia; the only alternatives are sparkling white wines from the south of the country or cheap, locally-produced beer, which is looked upon here as a soft drink.

Supermarkets have taken to filling the space previously occupied by whisky, gin, tequila and French and Australian wines with their traditional accompaniments, tubes of crisps and packets of peanuts, which is simply exacerbating the frustration.

Moscow's best restaurants, which add huge mark-ups to the vintage wines they serve to oligarchs, now shamefacedly refuse to hand customers a wine list, because almost nothing on it is available.

Natasha Dyachenko, a 25-year-old Moscow sales executive, thinks the chinovniki (officials) are to blame for the foul-up. "We don't have a prohibition on drinking, so why is this happening?" she demanded. "If they wanted to get rid of counterfeit products, they should have done so in a competent fashion, not like this."

It could be three months before the authorities get their act together, according to industry insiders - and by then vodka could be becoming hard to find. Production of the spirit slumped by 20 per cent in the first half of this year, and there are long delays in getting supplies to retailers, thanks to the same problem-plagued electronic tracking system.

The only people who are pleased are health officials, who have been battling, mostly unsuccessfully, for years to persuade Russians to moderate their drinking habits. Alcoholism is blamed for the country's low life expectancy, which is only 59 for Russian men.