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Tatarstan: Post Office Expands Into Vodka Business

In many poorer rural areas, vodka is even used to pay for services (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, August 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It's been a dry summer in the far-flung villages of rural Tatarstan. Lack of water, though, is not the problem. A traditional antidote to the tedium of village life is suddenly and dramatically in short supply.

Ramshackle shops and kiosks selling rows of vodka and beer were until this summer a feature of almost every village. Now their doors are locked and their shelves empty.

The owners, and with them their stock, vanished in July after state legislation forced individual traders to obtain a license to sell alcohol -- or close. Most chose the latter, daunted by the costs and a web of bureaucracy.

"If some older people need some work to be done in the garden or a roof
to be repaired, they pay [with] vodka. And people, usually young
people, they don't want money, they want just vodka."

"The lack of places selling alcohol in the villages is leading to illegal trade -- that's to say, trade has begun in bootleg alcohol," notes the deputy head of Tatarstan's State Alcohol Inspectorate, Rustem Arslanov. "So we need places that are licensed to sell alcohol. Tatarstan Pochtasi applied to us and we have supported them."

Vodka As Currency

For many in Tatarstan's often remote villages, the liquor drought has been a minor disaster. It's not just that lethal bootleg vodka is replacing the legal variety -- although that clearly is a problem. The issue is broader than that. In many poor parts of the republic, vodka has become a form of currency, traded for services.

"Vodka has been established as a very good currency," explains Alsu of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service. "There is no money and there is no cash in the Tatar villages. And people pay [with] vodka for every [job]. If some older people need some work to be done in the garden or a roof to be repaired, they pay [with] vodka. And people, usually young people, they don't want money, they want just vodka."

Alsu has relatives who live in the Tatar countryside who have experienced the vodka drought, and its consequences, firsthand.

"My grandmother is 81. She lives in a village in Tatarstan. We are very far away from her and we can't come to her village often and help her with the agricultural work. So she has to hire some people from the village -- some young people. And though [it displeases] their wives that she gives them vodka she still has to because otherwise they wouldn't work," Alsu says.

Little wonder then that Alsu's grandmother is delighted that Tatarstan Pochtasi has come to the rescue. The number of shops in rural areas has halved since July, in part because most depended on vodka sales to make a profit.

Post Office To The Rescue

According to official figures, three major districts now have no shops at all and a further five have almost none.

With the competition wiped out, the director-general of Tatarstan Pochtasi, Olga Kuznetsova, sensed a chance to make a killing. "We have 58 shops and we are selling alcohol in 24 of those," she says. "When we have shops, they sell everything: milk, bread, and alcohol."

In the long term, the post office says it plans to extend alcohol sales to 1,058 of its outlets in 44 districts of Tatarstan. But is it a good thing for the post office to acquire what amounts to a virtual monopoly on sales?

Arslanov of the Alcohol Inspectorate believes there is little choice. "We supported them precisely because they've opened shops in remote villages, where they have their post offices and where no other legal entities are able to organize trade in alcohol," he says.

The village post office is something of an institution in rural Tatarstan -- part post office, part library, part goods store, and part general meeting place. Now it might also become the village bar.

(RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report.)

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