RIGA, Latvia — Many gay bars in North America have stopped selling the famous Stolichnaya vodka brand to protest Russia’s crackdown on the gay community. But the vodka’s maker has joined forces with Latvia’s gay-rights group to say the boycott is misplaced.
The problem with the North American boycott, known on Twitter as the #dumpstoli campaign, is that the vodka is distilled in Latvia and owned by a Luxembourg company controlled by a Russian billionaire driven into exile for his opposition to just the kind of official prejudice exhibited in the new law targeting gays.
Indeed, although Stolichnaya is a historic Russian brand and some ingredients come from Russia, virtually all of the Stoli sold in the West is made in Latvia, a former Soviet republic that is now part of NATO and the European Union. The perception that it’s Russian prompted the boycott. Russia recently passed a law that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” and imposes hefty fines on those who hold gay-pride rallies.
The vodka is produced in Latvia by Latvijas Balzams, which has 600 employees and is one of the nation’s biggest exporters. However, Latvijas Balzams is nearly 90-percent owned by Luxembourg-based SPI Group, which in turn is controlled by Yury Shefler, a Russian-born billionaire who left Russia a decade ago after falling out with the Russian government over his support of opposition political parties.
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SPI said it was “very optimistic” that there would be a breakthrough in talks with 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,” SPI said in an email Friday
Mozaika, Latvia’s gay-rights group, appealed to organizers of the “Dump Stoli! Dump Russian Vodka!” to drop their campaign. “This campaign will only harm Latvia, Latvia’s economy and employees of the company Latvijas Balzams,” Mozaika said.
There was no sign the boycott will be called off. One group, Queer Nation, contended that SPI remained an appropriate boycott target. “Stolichnaya only spoke up after the boycott was announced.”
The boycott hasn’t seriously affected sales of Russian Standart vodka, a genuine Russian product, nor the popularity of Kaspersky antivirus software, another Russian product, according to the citizen-produced online newspaper The Journalist.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.