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Cops Smash Smirnov’s Doors Down

November 4, 2000

MOSCOW (AP) _ A squad of masked police smashed through the doors of one of Russia’s leading vodka makers Saturday while workers inside threw bottles of vodka at them in a dispute over control of the company.

The actions in central Moscow were the latest in a series of tense and often violent confrontations over some of the country’s most prominent businesses, and the second this year involving makers of renowned vodkas.

News reports said the officers were enforcing a recent court decision supporting the naming of Sergei Yuzefov as general director of the company. Smirnov head Boris Smirnov said on Russia’s NTV television that the court decision was illegal.

``I will appeal to the constitutional commission,″ he said.

Television footage showed officers gathered outside the doors of the Czarist-era building, apparently discussing strategy for entry. Then one yelled ``it’s burning, it’s burning!″

As police tore at the doors, a burst of flame appeared and a case of vodka was thrown from inside. Other officers smashed open windows with rods, then crawled through.

Inside, employees lay face down on the floor as police surged through the halls.

The conflict stems from this summer’s claim by Alfa-Eco, part of one of Russia’s largest industrial and banking groups, that it had obtained 50 percent of the shares in Smirnov.

The other 50 percent are reportedly held by Boris Smirnov, who has refused to recognize Alfa-Eco’s claim, saying that he has never seen supporting documents.

``It is an absolutely unprecedented case. It is a result of falsification of documents by a company Alfa-Eco that is known for its dirty deeds,″ Mikhail Grishin, a security officer for Boris Smirnov, told Associated Press Television News.

``This was a true bandit seizure of the building,″ said Smirnov’s lawyer Viktor Shubar.

Late Saturday, police continued to guard the building.

The dispute comes as Smirnov fights a court battle in the United States with the distilling giant UDV North America over the latter’s use of the name Smirnoff for its vodka, which is the best-selling vodka brand in the world.

UDV says it acquired the Smirnoff name in 1934 when its predecessor company Heublein bought it from Russian emigre Rudolf Kunett. Kunett, it says, had bought the brand from an impoverished Vladimir Smirnoff, one of founder Pyotr Arsenyevitch Smirnov’s five children who had left Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution and had Gallicized his name.

In August, a dispute over control of Moscow’s Kristall distillery, which Stolichnaya and other noted brands, resulted in a two-month standoff in which men with competing claims to being manager occupied the company’s executive offices and manufacturing facilities, each backed by private security squads.

A court finally ruled on the dispute in late September and the winner Alexander Romanov, said he considered the dispute resolved.

In the chaotic and often questionable privatizations that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, disputes over companies have broken out frequently.

Workers seized a paper mill last year to protest foreign ownership of the plant, and troops shot one worker when they raided the plant to end the occupation. In September, rival factions brawled for control of a chemical plant in Yekaterinburg.