Another Russian battle with the bottle

By Kim Iskyan

There's a reason for the popular perception that Russians like their drink: The average Russian citizen consumes 18 liters of pure alcohol per year, compared with about 11 liters per year in Western Europe. But if President Dmitry Medvedev's new anti-drinking campaign is a success, Russians will be toasting a lot less often.

Russian history is littered with failed attempts by imperious leaders with a social engineering streak to interfere in Russians' tippling habits. The most recent effort, the mid-1980s anti-drinking campaign spearheaded by Mikhail Gorbachev, was abandoned in part because it was hugely unpopular.

But the Kremlin has good reason to try again. Russia's drinking problem, which Medvedev has called a "national disaster," has long been cited as a key cause of Russia's ongoing demographic collapse. Alcohol abuse is a key reason why Russian men have a life expectancy of just 60 years, on par with North Korea and Papua New Guinea. In no small part due to alcohol abuse, the U.N. forecasts that Russia's population will fall from the current 142 million to 131 million by 2025, endangering economic growth and national security over the long term.

Medvedev has charged the government with developing an anti-drinking strategy by Dec. 1. Media reports suggest it may include new restrictions on advertising for alcoholic beverages; tightened regulations for low-alcohol content beverages; limitations on the times and locations at which alcoholic beverages can be sold; and price floors for and increased taxes on vodka. The plan will include additional measures to reduce Russia's gray alcohol market. The government is also contemplating whether to re-establish its monopoly on distilled spirits used to make vodka.

The campaign's chances of success may be better than previous Russian battles with the bottle. Some polls have suggested broad support for a temperance campaign. From a fiscal perspective, the relative contribution to the federal budget of alcohol taxation is a small fraction today of what it was during previous attempts to crack down on alcohol consumption, ensuring that lower consumption wouldn't dramatically decrease government revenue. It might even boost government coffers via higher taxes. Finally, the apparent success in the government's effort to eradicate legalized gambling -- as of July 1, all casinos and slot machine parlors operating outside four specified zones were closed -- reflects considerable political will to engineer positive social change, which could be channeled into an anti-alcohol effort.

Russia's anti-alcohol campaign is still in its very early stages. The politically powerful alcohol lobby, wary of higher taxes, could dilute the effort. And there are a lot more Russians drinking than gambling.

Kim Iskyan is a Europe and Eurasia analyst at Eurasia Group