WASHINGTON -- Baltimoreans with a taste for Russian vodka might find it more available as a result of President Bush's decision to back lower tariffs on Soviet goods, but they aren't likely to find it less expensive.
As with most, if not all, Soviet products that the president is now willing to let into the United States without the current heavy duties, the savings on vodka -- equal to about $1 per 750 milliliter bottle of Stolichnaya -- will go mostly to the importers and distributors.
"We've been eating that extra cost for years," said Stuart Ross, a spokesman for Monsieur Henri Wines, which is the U.S. distributor for Stolichnaya.
"This will just allow us to compete on equal footing with comparable imports," such as Sweden's Absolut, he said.
Mr. Bush's gesture, which must be approved by Congress as part of a new trade agreement with the Soviet Union, was not intended to benefit American consumers so much as to aid the faltering Soviet economy by opening U.S. markets to Soviet goods.
With lower tariffs, the Bush administration reasoned, more importers might be inspired to follow the example of Pepsico Inc., the supplier to Monsieur Henri Wines, which won exclusive rights to distribute Russian vodka in the United States in a 1972 barter deal that gave the Soviets Pepsi-Cola syrup.
"More Russian products here is probably the main benefit consumers will see," said Mr. Ross. "About all there is now is caviar, vodka and those dolls" on which the head comes off to reveal a series of smaller versions inside, he added.
Those are probably the best-known Soviet exports, but of the $1.1 billion worth of goods that came into the United States last year, nearly a third was silver and platinum, another third was oil and petroleum products, and there was $103 million worth of radioactive materials.
Because the tariffs fall most heavily on Soviet manufactured goods, lifting tariffs offers the prospect of spurring that sector of the troubled Soviet economy most if the economic reforms sought by Soviet leaders take hold.
"There's not going to be any dramatic effect at first," said Robert Cullen, author of a monthly newsletter on Soviet-American trade.
But he noted that woven rugs and aircraft are two Soviet products that might prove especially attractive to importers within a few years.
Mr. Cullen said that lowering the tariffs could also boost sales of the Lada, a passenger car that is the Soviet Union's leading manufactured export but not yet sold in this country because it doesn't meet U.S. safety and environmental standards.
In any case, the cost of Russian caviar is not going to go down, predicted Terry McDaniel, assistant manager of Victor's Gourmet Meats in Baltimore.
Five years ago, he said, a pound of the premium Beluga could be had for $365, and today it's going for $899 per 14-ounce can.
Even with the tariff dropping from 30 percent to 15 percent, Mr. McDaniel said, "I can tell you they're not going to be flooding the market with that stuff.
"They're going to take what they can get."