Latvian LGBT Organization Speaks Out on Misguided Russian Boycott

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The LGBT community has come out in full force the last two weeks to show their displeasure with the Russian government’s treatment of the gay citizens. With reports of beatings, arrests and deaths of gay and lesbian Russians, gay activists in America have spoken out to condemn those actions. In speaking out, many LGBT community members and establishments in the States have decided to boycott Russian products, most notably Stolichnaya Vodka.

Author and blogger Dan Savage has been one of the most forward advocates with his new found disdain for Stoli. He wrote in a recent blog post that in lieu of a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, he would rather “show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies” by refusing to buy Stoli or any vodka made in Russia. Doing so will “help draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin's increasingly fascistic Russia” in Savages opinion. Savage goes on to point out that Stoli’s Wikipedia page erroneously says that it is not a Russian vodka because it is distilled and bottled in Latvia. Latvia had twice been occupied, once by the Russian Empire and once by the Soviet Union, but gained independence both times before eventually joining the European Union in 2004.

Savage’s main point on boycotting Russian vodka, specifically Stoli, is because the owner of the company is a Russian millionaire named Yuri Scheffler. His company, SPI Group, owns the rights to produce Stoli. Company head quarters are in Luxemburg. But using the birth location of the owner of the company isn’t really a fair reason for Savage to call for a boycott of the product because Scheffler has been in exile from his homeland since 2002. Scheffler is accused of threatening to kill a government official after he refused to allow the state-run Agriculture Ministry to illegally obtain his trademark for Stoli and 16 other trademarks he acquired after the fall of Communism. Scheffler has not returned to Russia since.

In an attempt to clear up the confusion that Savage seems to be drumming up, SPI Chief Executive Officer Val Mendeleev released a statement reaffirming his company’s support of the LGBT community world-wide. Stoli has sponsored gay pride in Miami, a sponsorship that came with a $35,000 price tag. In the statement Mendeleev called the actions of the Russian government “dreadful” and that Stoli “firmly opposes” their actions.

“As a company that encourages transparency and fairness, we are upset and angry,” Mendeleev wrote. “Stolichnaya Vodka has always been and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community.”

Mendeleev pointed out that what Savage seems to be ignoring: Stoli Vodka is made in Latvia. Yes, Russian produce is used in the process, but the hard work of Latvian citizens is what produces a bottle of Stoli, not Russian hands or the Russian government.

The result of the debate is that protests in several cities have taken place where gay consumers have literally poured out Stoli vodka into the gutters of streets. A Stoli event in New York City was disrupted by members of the AIDS activist group ACT UP. In a press release, ACT UP said members blew whistles, chanted, and held up signs reading, "Russia Kills Gays," "Boycott Russia" and "Dump Stoli" while Stoli executives looked on.

"We need to send a clear message to Russia that the LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities will not send any of our money to a nation that viciously attacks the rights and safety of its LGBT people, including people with HIV and AIDS,” said ACT UP member Mark Milano.  “As long as these laws remain on the books, we demand a boycott of all Russian products.”

Keeping their actions HIV/AIDS centered, ACT UP asserts that the Russian law restricts the organizations that serve Russians living with HIV and AIDS and prevent further spread of the disease.

“ACT UP activists predict that access to safe sex information, sex education, condoms, and AIDS treatment drugs could be designated as ‘homosexual propaganda’ under Putin’s law and jeopardize HIV prevention efforts,” the statement read. “They’re demanding that international organizations like UNAIDS condemn the homophobic legislation.”

ACT UP member Brandon Cuicchi believes any organization or company that accepts advertising money from Stoli is just as guilty as the vodka maker.

"We question why LGBT companies like Queerty, Edge, and Scruff would continue to partner with or accept any money from Stoli Vodka,” Cuicchi said. “The vodka that Stoli serves to LGBT patrons is served on a platter of Putin’s homophobia and AIDSphobia.”

But again – Stoli served in the bar they disrupted is in fact NOT Russian.

MOZAIKA, a Latvian organization of LGBT people and their friends, released a statement by Latvian citizen and EuroPride 2015 Co-Chair Kaspars Zalitis in response to the growing “Dump Stoli” campaign to correct the confusion surrounding where Stoli actually comes from and enlighten people on their efforts for equality in the former Soviet state. In the statement, Zalitis said MAZAIKA have been very active in condemning Russia’s anti-LGBT actions and called the regression of basic human rights “worrying.” They also say the boycott of Stoli is misaimed.

“The international society should act and react in regards to grave violations of human rights in Russia and elsewhere,” Zalitis said. “However it is essential to do careful research before every action to make sure it reaches the addressee of the campaign.”

MAZAIKA has worked for nearly a decade to achieve positive change in LGBT rights in Latvia. The organization says they faced strong political opposition but have seen the positive changes. The group successfully launched Baltic Pride in the Baltic States in 2008 and called this year’s pride events the most successful march ever in the Baltics. Latvia stands to host EuroPride in Riga in 2015. Zalitis also points out that Latvia was occupied by Russia over 50 years ago, but they are in no way, shape or form related to their former occupants.

“Stolichnaya vodka is not produced in Russia and it is misleading to say that it is a Russian product,” Zalitis said. “All Stolichnaya vodka for worldwide export is produced in Latvia.”

While the group agrees that something needs to be done to protect the lives of LGBT people in Russia, they’re pleading with activists to know that their current position isn’t hurting Russia at all.

“We would kindly ask you to reconsider your actions in regards to ‘Dump Stoli’ as this campaign will only harm Latvia, Latvia’s economy and the employees of Latvijas Balzamas,” Zalitis said. “It could also backfire and have unintended negative consequences for the extremely fragile LGBT community in Latvia.”

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