Coca-Cola Russia, the affiliate for the global beverage giant whose iconic advertising campaign once tried to make drinking soda synonymous with global harmony, has found a new way to do just the opposite after wading into the geopolitical standoff over Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
On December 30, Coca-Cola Russia posted a holiday greetings message to the Russian social-media site VKontakte along with a map of the country dotted with Christmas trees.
The map, however, sparked an angry response from Russian VKontakte users, who complained it excluded several regions, including Crimea. The seizure and annexation of the Black Sea peninsula by the Kremlin in March 2014 has been rejected by most UN members and triggered Western sanctions against Moscow.
On January 5, the company issued an apology on its official VKontakte page, along with a new map that included Crimea, as well as two territories missing in the earlier map: Russia’s western Kaliningrad exclave and the Kurile Islands, the Pacific Island chain whose ownership is partially contested by Japan.
The new map generated a fresh wave of outrage from Ukrainians, who began circulating the hashtag #BanCocaCola and calling for a boycott of the company.
“Personally, I'm not going to buy more of these products, and I call on all sober fellow citizens, and their friends and followers, to do the same,” Mustafa Nayyem, pro-Western lawmaker in Ukraine’s parliament, wrote on his Facebook page.
“A replacement can be found for the loss of something small. But to destroy an entire country, having suffered thousands of losses, and yet to operate in its marketplace -- that seems to me, at the very least, to be strange,” Nayyem added.
Later on January 5, Coca-Cola Russia deleted the post entirely from its VKontakte page, though images of the disputed maps themselves could still be found in the page’s photo gallery. Cached versions of the post could also still be found online.
A similar map showing Crimea as part of Russia was also displayed prominently on Coca-Cola Russia’s website as of January 5, though it was removed from the site later in the day.
Coca-Cola’s Ukraine affiliate, meanwhile, included on its VKontakte page several artistic versions of Ukraine’s map, all of which included Crimea as part of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Washington said in a January 5 statement that it had “expressed its concerns” to Coca-Cola and the U.S. State Department “about the posting in social media by Coca-Cola’s Russian office of a map of Russia that included the illegally occupied Crimea.”
“The Embassy emphasized that Coca-Cola’s actions violate the official U.S. position condemning Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, which is and has always been an integral part of Ukraine, and urged the company to immediately correct the mistake,” the embassy said on its website.
The Atlanta-based Coca-Cola told RFE/RL in a statement that an agency working with its Russian affiliate had made the changes to the map “without our knowledge or approval.”
"We, as a company, do not take political positions unrelated to our business, and we apologize for the controversial post, which we have removed,” the company said in the e-mailed statement.
Though Coca-Cola’s global headquarters are in Atlanta, Georgia, its franchises around the world are typically independent bottling and distribution operations.
Coca-Cola’s chief rival, Pepsi Co., meanwhile, also didn’t escape the attention of Ukrainian activists, who circulated a map -- which appears to be from a Russian-language investment brochure -- that also showed Crimea as part of Russia.
-- With reporting by Carl Schreck