Russia aghast as red tape causes vodka shortage

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The Independent Online

Stocks of vodka, Russia's national tipple, are running dangerously low because of a Soviet-style bureaucratic blunder that has brought production to a halt.

Hardly a bottle of the grain-based spirit has been made since the beginning of the year, and as the mercury hovers around minus 20C, many vodka warehouses across the country are empty.

"Could Russia completely run out of vodka in 40 days?" was the apocalyptic front-page headline of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper yesterday, which published advice from a panel of politicians and celebrities on how to live without vodka and a cartoon of a man wringing a bottle of vodka as if it were wet laundry so as to extract every last drop. Although supermarket shelves are not yet denuded of the Russian national drink, manufacturers have warned that people are rapidly drinking what is left over from 2005, and that stocks will not last indefinitely. They have also warned that supplies of bootleg vodka, which has a record of poisoning, blinding and killing people, are increasing as black marketeers rush to fill the vacuum.

The cause of the chaos is an anti-counterfeiting law which came into force on 1 January, stipulating that every bottle of vodka must carry an excise duty stamp. Not enough of the new labels were made, and most of those that were have not yet made it to factories. It is, manufacturers complain, a typical case of gross incompetence on the part of the chinovniki (officials) who run the country.

Pavel Shapkin, head of the National Alcohol Association, has derided the situation as "absurd", and called for the guilty officials to be deprived of their bonuses and dressed down. Given the uncertainty, distillers say they have had no choice but to halt production.

Though factories say they have been producing tiny quantities of vodka for export, normal production for domestic consumption has been completely halted.

If the problem persists, cheap brands of vodka are predicted to disappear from shelves in the near future and the price of the remaining premium brands is expected to rise sharply.

The Russian state has been the big loser. It collects the equivalent of £3.4bn in taxes on spirits every year, but has had no vodka to tax so far this year.

Russians' love of strong spirits purportedly stretches back to the 11th century, when the then ruler, Prince Vladimir, reportedly said: "Russia's mirth is drinking. We cannot live without it."

Though demand for beer has grown rapidly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, vodka remains tremendously popular.

Each Russian is reported to consume 14 litres of alcohol a year, much of it in the form of neat vodka, traditionally tossed back in small shot glasses, swiftly followed by nibbling on a savoury snack such as a salted tomato, a pickled gherkin, or black bread.

Imbibing large quantities in sub-zero temperatures has proved lethal. More than 50 people have frozen to death in Russia this year. Many of them were drunks.

"The situation [of shortages] only cheers me up," Dima Bilan, a popular singer, was quoted as saying. He added: "It means that fewer people will freeze to death from being drunk in the street."

However, shortages of vodka, which can be bought for as little as £3 a bottle, are unlikely to deter those whose lives revolve around the transparent spirit.

"We'll go to the chemist," Aleksei Makarov, a handyman from Chelyabinsk, told Komsomolskaya Pravda.

"In our town the shelves are loaded down with berry-flavoured spirits - 100g costs 14 rubles [30p]. You can drink them neat or you can dilute them."

Though President Vladimir Putin has cultivated a "hard man" image for himself and is occasionally photographed having a vodka shot, he said recently that he did not drink spirits.

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