Liberal MPs argue for liberalizing alcohol laws

  • 2001-03-01
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - Lithuania's Liberal/Social Liberal coalition government is publicly demonstrating its liberal policies by relaxing alcohol laws. The parliament's Law and Order Committee has prepared draft legislation legalizing home-brewed beer.

Some other laws on alcohol are also undergoing review by liberal legislators. It is currently against the law to brew beer with an alcohol content higher than 3.5 percent in Lithuania without a license.

Members of the Law and Order Committee say the law, which contravenes ancient Lithuanian traditions, will be amended by spring. According to the new draft law, each family can brew beer with up to 9.5 percent alcohol and wine up to 18 percent for personal consumption.

"According to the new law, home production of beer with up to 9.5 percent is permitted, but not for sale," said Raimondas Sukys, chairman of the parliamentary Law and Order Committee and Liberal MP.

The legalization of homebrewing has garnered overwhelming support in northern Lithuania, where beer-making traditions still thrive on most local farms.

Domininkas Velicka, a well-known wine expert, member of the committee and also a Liberal MP, said he would like to encourage traditional homemade alcohol production. Before starting his political career as an MP last fall, Velicka wrote a weekly wine column for the daily newspaper Lietuvos Rytas. He also commented on alcoholic drinks for a weekly television program on Lithuania's LNK channel.

"Svyturys and Kalnapilis make very good beer, but it is uninteresting industrial beer. We need to cherish our ethnic culture and promote ethnographic beer. There is nothing wrong if some farmer makes a cask of his own beer for a wedding or a funeral," Velicka said.

While beer is most popular among Aukstaitijans and Zemaitijans, Lithuania's two main ethnic groups, Dzukijans, who live in the south of the country, are said to prefer harder stuff. They are the acknowledged masters at making Samane, a strong moonshine.

"I'm in favor of allowing Dzukijans to produce their 'national drink', but I can't tell you when Dzukijan homemade vodka might be legalized," Velicka said.

Currently, only the firm Alita in the town of Alytus (Dzukija's largest town) produces Samane under license. It is distilled according to a recipe obtained from Dzukijan farmers.

"Scottish and Irish whiskey was also produced illegally in the deep woods at the beginning," Velicka said, adding that Dzukijan moonshiners produce first-rate booze.

On Feb. 22 the Lithuanian parliament took more steps toward liberalizing alcohol consumption. It passed draft legislation for further deliberation that would allow alcohol sales 24 hours per day. Alcohol sales are forbidden from 6 AM to 11 AM in Lithuania.

The main argument presented by the ruling centrist coalition for lifting the ban was that the government has no right to limit customer choice or forbid the sale of a legal product.

Gintaras Sileikis, a Center Union MP, expressed his support for making alcohol sales legal around the clock. The Center Union is a small ally of the Liberal/Social Liberal coalition.

"Why is drinking is healthy at two minutes to 6 a.m. and not healthy two minutes past 6 a.m.," Sileikis asked during discussion in parliament over the amendment.

Conservative MP Arvydas Vidziunas pointed out that Sileikis' wife is Panevezys regional director of the alcohol trading firm Mineraliniai Vandenys.

The amendment was adopted by parliament despite the protests of the Social Democratic and Conservative parties.

Liberal MP Arminas Lydeka also proposed two amendments liberalizing alcohol consumption. His first proposition was to lift a ban on alcohol consumption in government buildings. Lydeka said that this ban does not work and government officials are forced to break the law.

"Champagne is drunk anyway after signing international treaties, although officially, such actions by our and foreign leaders are illegal. It encourages a nihilistic attitude towards the law," Lydeka said.

Lydeka's second proposition was to allow selling alcohol at various festivities. At the moment, only beer and wine sales are allowed during public gatherings. The two opposition parties on both the left and right wing, the Social Democratic Party and the Conservative Party derailed passage of Lydeka's two amendments in parliament.

Both left and right opposition MPs opposed liberalization of alcohol regulations. "People already drink a lot. We should not encourage them to drink all day," said Vytautas Landsbergis, the leader of Lithuania's Conservative Party. The parliament earlier decided to allow parliamentary committees to deliberate Lydeka's proposals further and they may come up for debate later in the general assembly.