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Russia's Medvedev praises Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday praised the unpopular 1980s anti-alcohol campaign of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and suggested his own crusade could also introduce new restrictions.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev gestures during the State Council session at the Kremlin in Moscow July 17, 2009. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Vladimir Rodionov

The positive comments towards Gorbachev are unusual in post-Soviet Russia, where he is usually identified with the sudden collapse in the former superpower’s status and the ensuing economic chaos of the early nineties.

In 1985, Gorbachev declared a war on the country’s traditional evil, ordering dramatic cuts in the production of wines and spirits and introducing strict controls on the public consumption of alcohol.

The campaign triggered a massive surge in illegal production of low-quality home brewed booze and the curbs soon dealt a fatal blow to the popularity of Gorbachev, the author of the liberal Soviet reform known as Perestroika.

Medvedev, who is waging his own campaign against alcoholism, which kills tens of thousands Russians every year and is seen by experts as a key factor for the country’s low life expectancy, said Gorbachev’s drive had some positive elements.

“(The campaign) was accompanied by idiotic bans and mistakes, which had fuelled a legitimate indignation among the population,” he told a meeting of his advisory State Council, comprising regional bosses and top officials.

“At the same time, and this is a fact rather than speculation, that period saw demographic growth that was unprecedented in our country,” he added.

A United Nations report in April said poor diet, smoking and heavy drinking had led to a high rate of heart disease and, alongside emigration and violent deaths, could cause Russia’s population to fall by 11 million to 131 million by 2025.

On average, 30,000 people -- twice the number of Soviet casualties during its 10-year war in Afghanistan -- die from alcohol poisoning in Russia each year.

A report by The Lancet medical journal last month said alcohol-related diseases caused around half of all deaths of Russians between the ages of 15 and 54.

In the past few weeks, Russia’s state-run television channels have been running a massive propaganda campaign against heavy drinking, especially among the young.

Medvedev said more than one-third of underage Russians consume alcohol. Teenagers sipping beer or cheap alcopops on the streets are a common sight in Russian cities and towns.

“We must think about a system of measures, including restrictive ones,” he told the State Council members.

Apart from the boom in moonshine, Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign led to the destruction of vineyards and wineries in the traditional production areas of Crimea, Moldova and Southern Russia. It took more than a decade to restore them.