In a bizarre discovery amid the raging Russia-Ukraine war, patrolling Ukrainian border officials near the southeastern city of Podilsk found an illegal “vodka pipeline” used to transport bootleg alcohol from Ukraine into Moldova.
A Vice news report said the Ukrainian government is probing if a larger racket is at play while already dismantling the pipeline. This is also the fourth time such a pipeline has been discovered.
“Three hundred meters of polyethylene pipe stretched from the state border underground in the direction of the private home of a 32-year-old citizen of Ukraine. Previously, the discovered highway was used for the illegal transfer of alcohol to Ukraine from the Transnistrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border,” Vice news quoted a statement from the Ukrainian government.
Moldova is to the southwest of Ukraine, and the north and west have been nearly unaffected by the conflict.
Except for a few cruise missile strikes on specific targets, it has been spared the heavy ground offensive seen in Donbas in the east and the south, which has seen a renewed fighting in Kherson.
Interestingly, the bootleggers seem to have not had much effort in building and running the racket since it had existed since the time of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The ‘vodka highway,’ the Vice report said, was a part of a network of pipelines built by the former Soviet Union to transport cheap Russian vodka into neighboring states to sell for a hefty profit.
Ukraine then was a part of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR), with the country being led by its own Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).
The first pipeline was found in 2004 between Belarus and Lithuania. This was followed by a one-mile line found in 2008 between Russia and Estonia.
This was the same year the Russo-Georgian war took place over the breakaway pro-Russian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The most recent discovery was in 2013 of a line transporting vodka from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan.
Apart from Moldova, all the other countries – Belarus, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, and the Kyrgyz Republic – were also part of the Soviet Union, led by their respective SSRs.
This tells something about the current political economy of these countries, where after the fall of the USSR, state-run liquor production has taken a hit, depriving citizens of a popular alcoholic beverage that had been a part of their society since the times of the Tsarist Russian Empire.
For instance, the high prices of liquor and spirits in Lithuania since it joined the European Union (EU) was one of the constraints that spurred bootlegging from Belarus. This led to a series of such ‘pipelines’ increasing between the two countries, transporting what is locally known as Samogan (or Moonshine).
This pipeline was three kilometers long and passed a local river and fields before opening a house in a small village. It, however, was only a few centimeters deep, and with the liquor flow originating from Belarus, it was unclear at the time how it was pumped through the pipe.
Post-Soviet Russia’s economy was a mess for nearly a decade, with massive poverty, hunger, economic marginalization, alcoholism, and crime that forced ordinary Russians and Belarussians to turn to hooch smuggling. For instance, Kazakhstan’s status as one of Central Asia’s biggest grain producers significantly made it a source of cheap spirits.