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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Officials Say Tide of Vodka Is Turning

Mikhail, a bleary-eyed car mechanic who was buying himself a light beer Thursday morning, was uninspired to learn that Russia produced more licensed than bootleg booze this year.

"I just drink whatever she sells me," the scruffy man said, pointing at the grinning kiosk owner. "Usually she doesn't give me poison. I'm still here, even after last night."

Tens of thousands of people die in Russia each year from drinking bad vodka -- booze, often concocted and bottled at home, made either from non-drinkable industrial ethyl, or the deadly methyl alcohols.

Gangs of criminals both in Russia and the former Soviet republics have been making a living selling nonlicensed vodka at the expense of both the public's health and the state's coffers.

But this year, officials insist, the vodka tide has turned their way.

After swallowing 70 percent of the market in 1995, unlicensed vodka accounts for less than half of all the hard liquor available to Russians, Yury Korotky, first deputy director of the Federal Tax Police, said Thursday.

Interior Ministry raids have uncovered 2.7 million liters of ethyl alcohol, which account for about 10 percent of Russia's annual vodka production. The raids have also shut down some 1,400 bootleg operations, according to the ministry's top economic crime fighter, Boris Tereshenko. There are only 120 legal distilleries in Russia.

"For the first time in many, many years, there is now more licensed liquor on the market than illegally produced alcohol," Korotky said.

Statistics in Russia are often sketchy, and police openly admit they can only estimate how many illegal distilleries have sprouted across Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

About 1 trillion rubles (dollars 168.8 million) in alcohol taxes go uncollected each year as a result of bootleg alcohol trade.

Korotky and Tereshenko estimated Thursday that about 43,000 people have died from alcohol poisoning in Russia so far this year. On average, about 350 Americans annually suffer the same fate.

Incidents of mass alcohol poisoning -- like one last summer in Krasnoyarsk that claimed more than 20 lives over a two-day period -- are not rare.

The Kremlin in July went on the offensive when President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree banning the sale of hard alcohol in street kiosks.

Yeltsin's order has been loosely enforced: It takes but a brief stroll to locate a vodka-packed kiosk in Moscow.

Moscow has launched its own program. Starting Jan. 1, the city plans to sell all alcohol through a single retail monopoly. The design is to collect more taxes and better regulate the market.

Meanwhile, Russia is fights an alcohol war with Georgia, once the Soviet Union's mightiest wine producer.

Already a border skirmish has broken out after Russia refused to let dozens of trucks hauling tons of Georgian alcohol into Russia. The Kremlin wants Georgia to pay a special tax on the alcohol. "Many trucks are standing at the border, waiting," Tereshenko said.