MOSCOW – You can take a lot from Russia; it has lost plenty already: cash, empire, territory, clout. Russia is tough and wintry; Russia survives undaunted.
But there’s one thing you can’t take from Russia, and maybe it has something to do with all that loss: the bottle.
No leader has ever cracked down on Russia’s epic drinking and been kindly remembered for his trouble. But now the young president says he is going to try.
In a country where you can sip vodka at the playground while watching your children scramble on the jungle gym and polish off a business meeting with endless rounds of toasts, Dmitry Medvedev has launched a classic public-relations campaign against drinking, replete with blistering condemnations, public commands to his underlings and the promise (or threat) of impending change.
Recent limits on alcohol advertising and stiffer drunken-driving penalties haven’t dented Russia’s appetite for booze, the president griped. “Nothing has helped,” he lamented a few weeks ago as he asked the government to craft new restrictions. And so Russians wait, with their trademark skepticism, to see what form this latest crusade will take.
Russian tipplers are still grousing about former President Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign of slashing production and jacking up the price of vodka to force Russians to stop drinking.
Is this a fight Medvedev can win? Many Russians regard the president as the deferential offshoot of his longtime mentor, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Medvedev has done little to carve out any position distinguishing him from Putin.
And so it has caught the nation by surprise to hear him seize upon drinking with such venom. In one particularly fiery moment, Medvedev even went so far as to praise Gorbachev’s hated campaign.