In the murky gray area between recognized sovereignty and de-facto republicanism — a land dotted with statues of deposed leaders and littered with new monuments to old ideas — the presence of alcohol is a steadying force. This should not come as a surprise. Separatist republics, and the manner with which they retain their separatism, are bloody affairs driven forward by the allure of false hope. Naturally, in such an environment, misery inoculates rather quickly, and alcohol is there to soothe the pain.
In unrecognized entities, such as the de-facto Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR or Transnistria), the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), alcohol plays many roles: an economic asset, a target of criminal enterprises, and, a lever of social subjugation.
Declared in 1990, and recognized by only three other de-facto states (South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic), Transnistria was one of only two beacons of Soviet nostalgia in Europe (the other being Belarus), until the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The state’s longevity as a bastion of Lenin statues, nationalist slogans, billboards glorifying the “motherland,” and Russian government financial aid has allowed the PMR to develop an alcohol production capacity that towers over that of other de-facto states. This is mainly due to the fact that Tiraspol, the capital of the PMR and the second largest city in Moldova, is home to KVINT, a wine and brandy distillery that dates back to 1897 (KVINT is a Moldovan acronym for Cognacs, Wines, and Beverages of Tiraspol). Production for the distillery reaches approximately 9 million liters of spirits annually (about 2.5 million gallons), of which 3.5 million are divin, or Moldovan “cognac.” The quotes in the preceding sentence are an important distinction. Given that EU and French law recognizes the Cognac Region as an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), no distilled grape spirit produced outside of the region can officially bear the name cognac. Failure to accept this rule could preclude Moldovan accession to the EU, were it ever to be on the table. Additionally, KVINT’s importance to the PMR economy cannot be understated. The distillery’s wares are so wildly popular in the PMR that its Tiraspol-based factory is on the back of the Transnistrian five ruble note, and sales from the distillery account for approximately 4 percent of the PMR’s GDP.
While KVINT continues its business relatively unhindered in the PMR, alcohol production in the DNR and LNR is a mixture of nationalized infrastructure and a growing black market. In the DNR, nationalization of pre-existing liquor production began in earnest on April 9, 2014, when 200 pro-DNR demonstrators captured the LIC distillery in central Donetsk. Formerly a subsidiary of Olimp, a Ukrainian distillery opened in 2000 primarily focusing on producing vodka for export, LIC has remained focused on producing vodka marketed to the local population. In fact, the only aspects of LIC’s vodka that seem to have changed since April 2014 are their overtly pro-separatist/pro-Russian labels and their prices, which are cheaper in the DNR than in Russia.
Compared to the DNR, the LNR follows a similar path. Both republics have found distilleries (and more importantly their employees) to be easy vehicles to promote the narrative of economic vibrancy. On August 25, 2015, the separatist mayor of Luhansk, Manolis Pilavov, met with workers of the Luga-Nova Distillery in central Luhansk to personally thank the distillery’s director, Leonid Derzhaka, for his role in restarting production on January 20, 2015. In addition to local alcohol production, LNR officials have used the price points of foreign liquor to promote the false narrative of economic normalcy. In a report published by Gazeta.ru on June 3, 2015 about life in the LNR, the price for a “portion” of Hennessy XO was quoted as being 200 rubles (about 2.90 USD or about 1/20th the price here in the States).
The separatist republics in eastern Ukraine have both utilized pre-existing production infrastructure for economic gain, but face a growing challenge from black market production. Recognizing this, the DNR and LNR have both enacted legislation codifying alcohol tariffs while also increasing efforts to stem the flow of counterfeit alcohol. Both facets of their policy seem symbolic at best, and resemble PR efforts more than actual steps to implement judicial control.
Unless they are recognized shortly after their conception, de-facto republics strive for one thing throughout their existence: legitimacy. Understanding that achieving formal international recognition is markedly harder than embracing legitimacy granted to them from the societies they control, de-facto governments employ any means possible to position themselves within pre-existing social constructs. In turn, a simple equation develops wherein a new entity (the separatist government) tries to adjoin with an old entity (the local population). All the while, alcohol serves to keep the process lubricated, and provides straws for fledgling governments to grasp at.
Ruben Gzirian is a pursuer of fine whiskeys, with Michter’s US*1 American Whiskey currently his favorite. He holds an MA from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and enjoys reading World War II history, with a focus on the Eastern Front.
Photo credit: Maxence