One vodka maker with ties to Russia is pleading with LGBT activists to ease up on a boycott, and it's distancing itself from its connection to Russia by highlighting its Latvian ties. The turn of evens illustrates how difficult it can sometimes be to focus a protest campaign in a world of sprawling international brands.
In June, Russia enacted a law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” And in July, the country banned international adoptions to countries that allow same-sex marriages, and one lawmaker has proposed taking children away from gay parents in Russia. These measures, combined with what human rights activists are calling a rise in anti-gay violence, have led to furious calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Sochi, Russia.
Gay activists have also looked to send a message in the more immediate future by encouraging people and bars to stop stocking Russian vodka. One popular slogan for the boycott on Twitter was “#dumpstoli,” referring to Stolichnaya vodka. The brand was a Soviet staple, and domestic Stolichnaya is produced by a state-owned company and cannot be exported. The Stoli that vodka drinkers outside of Russia are familiar with is produced by the Luxembourg-based SPI Group, owned by Russian Yury Shefler. Despite its Russian branding, exported Stolichnaya is actually made in Riga, the capital of Latvia.
Latvian LGBT activist Kaspars Zalitis worries that if the boycott succeeds and Stoli’s sales drop, it will be his countrymen, not Russian politicians, who will feel the pain. He’s written to the leaders of the vodka boycott about his concerns.
“If the boycott works, Latvians will lose their jobs. Who are they going to blame? Putin? No, they are going to blame gays,” Zalitis told the New York Times on Sunday.
But in a letter to Zalitis, U.S. and Russia-based activists noted that they have called for a boycott of all Russian vodkas, not just Stoli. Even with its ties to Latvia, Stoli is still a ripe target for the movement, they wrote.
“SPI has offices and operations in Russia, where it employs several hundred people,” Queen Nation and RUSA LGBT activists said. “The company grows the wheat and rye that are used in Stolichnaya on 5,000 hectares of Russian land, and all of the initial processing of the vodka is done in Russia. Only the final step occurs in Latvia.”
In July, SPI CEO Val Mendeleev wrote a letter to the gay community in which he emphasized that Stoli is not a state-owned company. Mendeleev called the Russian government’s recent actions “dreadful” and highlighted its close ties to the LGBT community in nations across the world, including sponsoring Miami, Fl.’s gay pride week.
And while it’s also true that the company’s owner is one of the richest Russian-born men in the world, as Mendeleev pointed out to the Times, so is Google co-founder Sergey Brin. But most proponents of the boycott still insist that companies with strong ties to Russia have a responsibility to lean on their country’s government.
“Frankly I'm not interested in Stoli's marketing efforts in the West,” advice columnist and gay activist Dan Savage wrote for the Stranger in July. “I'm interested in what this Russian-owned company is doing in Russia.”
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