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Originally published July 30, 2013 at 5:10 PM | Page modified July 31, 2013 at 11:11 AM

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West Hollywood bars boycott vodka over Russian anti-gay laws

Russian vodka and the Winter Olympics in Sochi are targets of boycotts by gays outraged over Russia’s intensifying campaign against gay-rights activism.

Los Angeles Times

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LOS ANGELES — West Hollywood may be home to a thriving Russian community, but at least one import is no longer welcome at the city’s gay bars.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed anti-gay laws, bar owners decided to say nyet to Stolichnaya vodka. Numerous bars have removed the brand — made from Russian ingredients — from their shelves and stopped ordering it from distributors. Bars in New York, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco are planning to do the same.

“Nobody was buying it,” said Bob Yacoubian, owner of the Mother Lode bar in West Hollywood.

Yacoubian plans to hang a sign in his bar reading: “Russia’s intolerance of homosexuality should not be supported by our hard-earned money!”

Activists also are pressing the International Olympic Committee and NBC, which holds U.S. broadcasting rights for Sochi, to be more aggressive in criticizing new Russian laws.

So far, there have been only scattered calls for a full-fledged boycott of the Sochi Games, but there is active discussion of how to convey gay-rights messages once the competition begins — including gestures by individual athletes and perhaps a gay-pride parade.

Putin recently signed legislation banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” including gay-pride events and providing children with information about homosexuality.

The law imposes hefty fines, and foreign citizens arrested under the law can be jailed for 15 days and then deported.

Human-rights activists say the legislation has encouraged hate crimes against gays and lesbians. Putin also recently signed legislation banning gay adoptions.

West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, who has been encouraging bars to join the boycott, said protesters in West Hollywood plan to dump the contents of Stolichnaya bottles into a gutter to raise awareness of Russia’s laws. The protest is planned for Thursday in front of Micky’s bar and will use bottles filled with water, not vodka, he said.

About 40 percent of West Hollywood’s population is gay or lesbian, according to city surveys. It is also home to a large number of immigrants from countries of the former Soviet Union, who make up 11 percent of the city’s population, city surveys state.

Russian bakeries and stores line Santa Monica Boulevard — as do gay bars. Public notices in City Hall, where a rainbow flag flies, are in English and Russian.

The chief executive of the SPI Group, which owns the Stolichnaya vodka brand, responded to the boycott in an open letter “to the LGBT community” on Thursday.

“Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community,” Val Mendeleev wrote.

The Stolichnaya brand, he wrote, has no ties to the Russian government. Though the vodka is made from Russian ingredients, it is privately owned by the SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg, Mendeleev wrote.

NBC also is coming under pressure, including an open letter from the Human Rights Campaign saying it would be wrong to televise Sochi’s opening ceremonies without reporting on the anti-gay legislation.

Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, was asked about the matter during a weekend meeting with television critics.

“We will address it if it becomes an issue,” he said. “If it is still their law and it is impacting any part of the Olympics Games, we will make sure that we acknowledge it and recognize it.”

Includes material from The Associated Press

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