Europe

London gay community joins boycott of Russian vodka

  • 30 July 2013
  • From the section Europe
Two bottles of Stolichnaya vodka
Image caption Campaign organisers consider Stolichnaya vodka a national brand

Popular London gay bars and nightclubs have decided to boycott Russian vodka brands, joining a global campaign launched by North American gay activists in solidarity with the LGBT community in Russia.

The organisers accuse the Russian authorities of an increasingly aggressive stance towards sexual minorities.

They are angry about a controversial law signed by President Vladimir Putin banning the promotion of "non-traditional values" to children, the refusal to allow gay pride events and harassment of gay activists.

Many conservative Russians suspect gay rights campaigners of trying to undermine traditional family values.

The purpose of the vodka boycott is clear: to harm the image of a product that has become a national brand, symbolising Russia.

Some activists suggest going further by boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics, due to be held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Image caption The call to boycott was posted on the websites of London's popular gay bars

The SPI Group behind the most famous vodka brand in the West - Stolichnaya - has declared its firm support for the LGBT community.

Russian Standard - another popular vodka brand in the UK - declined to comment.

'How can it get any worse?'

The vodka boycott campaign was launched by US writer and activist Dan Savage.

He wrote in his blog that gay bars in Seattle should "dump Stoli... to show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin's increasingly fascistic Russia".

Savage's initiative generated a swift response in the US and Canada, and then on the other side of the Atlantic.

Jeremy Joseph is co-founder and owner of the G-A-Y Group, which owns a bar chain of the same name. He sees the vodka boycott as an act of solidarity with the Russian LGBT community.

"There are other countries where it is illegal to be lesbian or gay. But this is shocking, because they are taking a step back rather than a step forward. And in the last couple of weeks, looking at some of the videos and stories coming out of Russia - it's so horrific, it's so scary," Mr Joseph said in an interview with BBC Russian.

Moreover, Mr Joseph believes that boycotting Russian vodka may be just the beginning.

"Hopefully, this would lead to not just Russian vodka being banned, but looking at the brands that will be sponsoring the Winter Olympics [who will know that] unless they make a stand, then their products will get banned."

At the same time, the G-A-Y Group owner does not believe that a high-profile campaign in the West will make life worse for LGBT people in Russia.

"How can it get any worse? I would like to hope, not. But what do we do? Sit back and do nothing?" he asks.

Global 'act of despair'

Peter Tatchell, a veteran gay rights activist and human rights campaigner, has expressed his support for the vodka boycott.

Image caption Peter Tatchell (l) joined protests against a ban on gay pride in Moscow in 2008

"The Russian government has passed a draconian new homophobic law that criminalises any public expression of gay identity or call for gay human rights," Mr Tatchell told BBC Russian.

"In addition, there has been a wave of organised homophobic violence targeting individual LGBT people. Some of the victims have been tortured or killed. The police are doing little or nothing to bring the perpetrators to justice," he adds.

"Russian LGBT organisations and international human rights groups have appealed to the Russian government to scrap the anti-gay laws and crack down on homophobic violence. Their appeals have been ignored, the repression is intensifying", says Mr Tatchell.

Mr Tatchell describes calls to boycott Russian products as an act of despair and expresses hope that "this campaign will go global in the coming weeks".

Stoli's 'equality and diversity'

Val Mendeleev, chief executive officer of the SPI Group, which owns Stolichnaya, said his company "is an apolitical, business-oriented organisation". "However, the LGBT community in the US and worldwide are consumers of Stoli Premium vodka globally, and as such are our stakeholders," he told BBC Russian.

Mr Mendeleev stresses that his company's "corporate values stand for transparency, fairness, equality and diversity".

Image caption Stolichnaya's owners argue the vodka is not a Russian product as it is produced in Latvia

Earlier he wrote an open letter to the LGBT community, which was published on the SPI Group's website and on Facebook page.

"Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community," he wrote, citing examples of the SPI Group's support for gay events all over the world, including gay pride events in Durban, Tel Aviv and Vienna.

He also said Stolichnaya should not be regarded as a Russian product, since it is produced in Latvia, albeit using Russian ingredients.

Chris Amos, the owner and manager of Manbar in London's Soho, welcomed Mr Mendeleev's statement.

"It's regrettable for them that they are getting the raft of the gay fury and all of this. But at the same time, it will be them and other Russian companies like them who will then go back to the Russian government to argue for our case and support our case," he told BBC Russian.

"That's great that they are doing that [writing the letter], but that doesn't stop the boycott. And the boycott will hopefully go to other Russian companies, who will - like Stoli - issue statements in support of the gay and lesbian population", Mr Amos said.

Sochi Olympics

Image caption Gay rights campaigners protested against the new law in St Petersburg in May

LGBT activists have been discussing another form of protest against the Russian authorities: boycotting the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Jeremy Joseph of the G-A-Y Group is fully behind the idea.

"I personally believe that Russia doesn't have the right to host the Winter Olympics now", he argues. "There is supposed to be an Olympic spirit of everybody joining together as one. How can you have it in a country that is so prejudiced?"

Dan Savage, however, believes that it would be better if athletes from the LGBT community went to Sochi to compete and win, to show the whole world they are not afraid to be themselves.

Last Friday, the International Olympic Committee announced that it had received assurances from the Russian officials that "the [new anti-gay] legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the games".

But immediately after that one of the most prominent Russian anti-gay campaigners, Vitaly Milonov of St Petersburg Legislative Assembly, called on the Russian authorities to refrain from applying the gay-propaganda law inconsistently during the Sochi Olympics.

After all, Mr Milonov actively participated in writing it.

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