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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spirited Smirnoff Contenders Welcome Yeltsin's Intervention

Both sides in the battle over the right to own the Smirnoff vodka brand name in Russia were encouraged by President Boris Yeltsin's public intervention in the dispute last week.

Yeltsin called Thursday for a review of Smirnoff imports into Russia and said the issue should be raised at the next meeting of the high-level Gore-Chernomyrdin commission.

The commission, set up by U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to regulate bilateral trade issues, is due to meet in Moscow later this month.

"We welcome Yeltsin's call for the commission to look into it," said Neil Garnett, a spokesman for International Distillers and Vintners, or IDV, the beverage arm of Grand Metropolitan, which owns the Smirnoff name worldwide.

"It is not just a Russian issue but a worldwide intellectual property rights issue," he said.

The British drinks group has been in a two-year legal battle with its Russian rival, set up by Boris Smirnov, the great grandson of Peter Smirnoff, over the right to use the brand name. In June, a Moscow Arbitration Court rejected an appeal by Grandmet's U.S. subsidiary Heublein and upheld an earlier decision to revoke Smirnoff's trademark registration in Russia.

Smirnov said Yeltsin's statement would add weight to his case. "We are enthused by the fact that President Boris Yeltsin is backing Russian producers," Itar-tass quoted Smirnov as saying Friday. Yeltsin gave his support last week to the Russian brand, saying it was of higher quality than its Western rival.

IDV's Garnett said the company is not concerned about Yeltsin's call for a review of Smirnoff imports because it produces all its vodka for the Russian market at a factory in St. Petersburg.

Garnett also said IDV was cheered by a recent statement by the deputy chairman of the Russian Supreme Court, Nina Sergeyeva, who urged the Krasnodar regional court to reconsider its original 1995 ruling against Heublein, calling it "unfounded and illegitimate."

The Supreme Court's call could help Smirnoff overturn earlier rulings by lower courts, Garnett said.

"We plan to take the case on to higher level courts," he said.