Take Control Over Trade Of Alcohol

The recent tragic death of 22 people in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk from contaminated vodka is yet another clear reason for the government to tighten control over the production and trade of spirits.

Both the authorities and the people are concerned about the country's vodka problem. This offers a good occasion for the government to take new, strict measures in regulating the alcohol market. The budget should get at least a part of its former revenues from the production and sale of vodka. People should be protected from counterfeit, and often simply poisonous drinks.

For the past two years the government has been trying to combat the production of contraband and underground strong spirits. The illegal market for such beverages, however, has turned out to be stronger than the authorities. The tightening of procedures for importing vodka has resulted in official figures showing that not a single bottle of the imported beverage has been brought into the country since January. At the same time, of course, today you can find practically any brand of imported vodka in almost any store.

In southern Russia, the Krasnodarsk regional administration adopted a resolution May 31 on controlling the vodka trade in the region. After June 1, all alcohol entering the territory will be held up at the borders and brought to one of three specially designated storage sites.

In order for the importer to receive his goods, he must pay for a stamp that certifies the quality of each of the bottles, which already have excise stamps. The certification costs about 40 cents each, and then the importer must pay for them to be pasted on to the bottles. And while this is taking place, he must pay for storage.

Given the recent cases of poisoning in the Krasnoyarsk region, it is easy to see how public opinion could be swayed into accepting the need for such stamps. It is hard to imagine, though, that someone will actually be convinced that the stamp will actually guarantee a product's authenticity.

So what is the reason for the stamps, which the government has decided should be applied to all goods subject to excise, starting in 1998? Perhaps another federal department decided to join the struggle for the redistribution of revenues from the import of alcohol and tobacco. The State Standards department of the Russian Federation has been excluded from the flow of revenues for the past few years. Now it will give permission for the certificates. And whenever there is a question of granting such permission, there are bound to be revenues, but not necessarily to the budget.

Moreover, there are some signs that the idea of introducing the stamps came from a company of energetic people who obtained a factory in the United States for making holograms. The proposed hologram stamp is, in fact, not complicated to make and can easily be falsified. But an order for producing tens of millions stamps, even if they are of use to no one, is a lucrative prospect.

It seems that more and more new players are trying to profit from the fruitless attempts to bring order to the market for alcohol: local authorities, federal departments and enterprising people. But if the number of people who are earning money from the disorder becomes too large, then bringing order to the market will simply become impossible.

Mikhail Berger is economics editor for Izvestia.