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States and Cities Impose Boycotts Against Russian Goods

States that oversee liquor sales directly are getting rid of vodka, while a number of governors and local officials are looking to end investment or break off ties with Russia.

A selection of bottles of alcohol surrounded by ice.
Governors don’t want you buying Russian vodka, caviar or those big furry hats. A number of governors have announced boycotts of Russian goods or divestment from that country in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

On Saturday, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu issued an executive order removing Russian made or branded products from state-run liquor stores. “It’s unprovoked aggression,” he said. “If we can get New Hampshire (residents) to do their part and take these Russian products off of the shelves — I don’t know anyone buying that garbage right now, frankly — it’s a good thing and it’s a step we can make.”

New Hampshire is one of 17 states that controls wholesale liquor sales. Thirteen sell liquor directly as retailers through ABC (alcohol beverage control) stores. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Spencer Cox of Utah joined Sununu in barring sales of Russian products over the weekend. “Russia’s ruthless attack on a sovereign nation is an egregious violation of human rights,” Cox said. “Utah stands in solidarity with Ukraine and will not support Russian enterprises, no matter how small the exchange.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul went further, signing an executive order on Sunday to block her state from investing in Russia and New York companies from doing business with Russian entities. She also said that the state will welcome Ukrainian refugees. New York is home to about 140,000 people of Ukrainian descent, out of about 1 million in the country as a whole.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he was directing the state Department of General Services to determine whether the state was buying “goods and services from primarily Russian companies” and called on Norfolk and Roanoke to end their sister city relationships with Russian cities. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has asked restaurants, liquor stores and retailers to stop selling all Russian products, on a voluntary basis.

These are all largely symbolic gestures. Individual states don’t have trading relationships large enough with Russia to inflict the kind of pain already being felt there due to financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other nations. Still, governors are determined to take a stand with Ukraine and against Russia.

“We will do our part to push back on the Russian invaders and stand with our sisters and brothers in Ukraine,” Cox said.

Not Much Trade With Russia

The Russian economy — which is shrinking fast due to sanctions — was already less than one-tenth the size of America’s. Three states — California, Texas and New York — have economies that are larger than Russia’s. Russia is the nation’s 26th largest trading partner, with $28 billion worth of two-way trade in 2019.

Vodka may be the best-known Russian product in western eyes, but it makes up a tiny share not only of liquor sales but even of U.S. vodka imports — just over 1 percent. The well-known brand Stolichnaya is under dispute but the vodka sold under that name in the U.S. is made by Luxembourg-based SPI Group in Latvia.

The home page of the group’s U.S. website currently displays a dove of peace in the Ukrainian colors of blue and gold. “Stoli® Group stands for peace in Europe and in solidarity with the Ukrainian people,” it says. “#LiberateUkraine.”

But boycotting foreign products during time of war has a long history. During World War I, sauerkraut was redubbed victory cabbage in the U.S., blunting its association with Germany. When France refused to back the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003, some restaurants refashioned French fries as “freedom fries,” including cafeterias on Capitol Hill. (France actually imports 35 times as much vodka into the U.S. than Russia, by dollar value.)

And of course student protesters have frequently called for boycotts and divestment from other countries, from apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s to Israel today, for its treatment of Palestinians. In Virginia, Youngkin doesn’t control the state pension fund or public universities, but he’s called on their boards to divest from Russian companies.

It makes some sense for states to use their economic power to express their values. Governors have made international trade missions a routine part of their calendars, with states running their own trade missions to drum up business overseas.

Dumping Russian Vodka

The idea of dumping foreign products dates back to the founding of the country. The Boston Tea Party — a 1773 protest that spilled tea belonging to the British East India Company into Boston Harbor — was a triggering event of the American Revolution.

Bar and liquor store owners across the country have stopped selling or poured out bottles of vodka, from Wichita to Las Vegas and Bend, Ore. “It’s a protest against the aggression,” said Bob Quay, the owner of a bar in Grand Rapids, Mich., as he pulled five bottles of (non-Russian made) Stolichnaya and Smirnoff vodka from his selves.

Ohio’s liquor agencies had 6,400 bottles of vodka made by Russian Standard, their only Russian supplier, when DeWine issued his order. In New Hampshire, Sununu said that the state sells $20 million worth of Russian liquor products a year.

Ending such sales won’t affect the outcome of the war, but symbolic gestures are important. All the people flying Ukrainian flags as part of their social media profiles can attest. Boycotts are expressions of disdain and disapproval for the most aggressive land war in Europe since World War II.

“For years Manhattan has been one of the most popular safe harbors for Russian oligarchs to park their cash, especially via ultra-high end apartments,” tweeted Borough President Mark Levine. “It’s time to start seizing their properties.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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