Want to Smuggle Some Vodka? Build a Pipeline.

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Aug. 20 2013 6:07 PM

The Vodka Pipelines of the Former Soviet Union

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This undated file picture, shows Russians purchasing vodka from a street kiosk in Moscow.

Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Smuggling has always been an effective driver of technical innovation. See, for instance, the homemade submarines and catapults developed by South American and Mexican drug cartels to move their wares into the United States. But for countries of the former Soviet Union, the method of choice seems to be pipelines.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Kyrgyz customs officials have shut down a pipeline that had apparently been used to transport illegal vodka over (or rather under) the border from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan:

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The 20-centimetre-thick, half-kilometre-long pipe had been laid beneath the border river Chu, said the police official from the northern Kyrgyz city of Tokmok.

It was equipped with multiple valves and lay on a track along the river's bottom.

"We assume that thousands of litres of alcohol were smuggled with it, primarily vodka," said the police officer.

It’s an odd story, but it’s also not the first time this has come up. In 2008, police discovered a 2-kilometer pipeline through a reservoir on the Russian-Estonian border that smugglers had used to transport cheap Russian vodka into the Soviet Union. The Telegraph noted at the time that a similar pipeline between the two countries had been found in 2006.

In 2004, the BBC reported that a 3-kilometer pipeline had been discovered, which had been used to funnel cheap booze from Belarus to Lithuania. Police said it was the fourth such pipeline they had uncovered.

In the EU-member Baltic States, it’s a case of smugglers looking to charge European prices for cheap Russian alcohol. In the case of this week’s discovery, industry website The Drinks Business notes that “as one of the biggest grain producers in Central Asia, Kazakhstan represents an attractive source of cheap spirits.”

And as a rising oil producer, one suspects the country has some hydraulic engineering talent to spare as well. 

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