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Belarus: As Drinking Increases, Government Declares War

Public drunkeness has increased in Belarus in the post-Soviet period ( PRAGUE, July 26, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Drinking has become such a problem in Belarus that it is threatening the very existence of the nation.

That, at least, is the view of sociologist Mikhail Zaleski, who specializes in the problems of alcohol abuse. He says that official statistics show that it has become one of the main causes of early death.

Police Prepare A Crackdown

As a result, Belarus is toughening its fight against alcoholism. The Interior Ministry has prepared a draft presidential decree aimed at reducing alcohol consumption.

The new measures target public drinking and introduces new penalties for selling beer to minors. There are also new restrictions on advertising alcoholic drinks, including beer.

Life expectancy for Belarusian males has fallen to 63 years, and for females to 75. In neighboring Poland, the equivalent figures are 70 years for males and 79 years for females. Belarus also has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe.

"People drink anything containing alcohol," Zaleski says. "They buy it and drink it on the spot. This is the modern culture of drinking."

"If you make a statistical model and remove the factor of alcohol abuse, the average life expectancy of Belarusian men increases by seven years," Zaleski says.

Zaleski says that at the beginning of the 20th century five people in 100,000 committed suicide, but that the number has now reached 60 and is growing. He says sociologists and medics agree that the main reason is alcohol abuse.

Beer And Vodka

After the collapse of communism, many Eastern Europeans changed their drinking habits and moved from strong drinks to wine and beer, says Alyaksandr Sasnou, deputy director of Socioeconomic and Political Studies, a Belarusian think tank.

But this hasn't happened in Belarus, where beer drinking has also become more widespread, but the amount of spirits consumed has not fallen significantly.

A man drinks in a Minsk park (Bymedia file photo)

"People drink beer and it is sold almost everywhere," Sasnou says. "This was not the case in Soviet times. There are inebriated people everywhere. You cannot say they are drunk, insofar as they are not lying under a fence, but there are a lot of people under the influence."

Cheap And Getting Cheaper

It's no longer unusual to see young people sitting on benches drinking beer or strolling the streets with beer bottles in their hands. Beer is often mixed with vodka. There's even a popular saying: "Beer without vodka is a waste of money."

Sasnou says alcohol-induced "happiness" is cheaper than it was during Soviet times.

"We have calculated [the price of alcohol] in relation to the average salary," he says. "You can now buy more spirits for an average salary than during the Soviet period."

"People drink anything containing alcohol," Zaleski says. "They buy it and drink it on the spot. This is the modern culture of drinking. Shops selling alcohol work around the clock. It's the same with places selling empty bottles or waste paper. People steal to buy alcohol and then they drink it on the spot. I see this everyday."

The government's planned restrictions are already being compared with the anti-alcohol campaign launched by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union 1985. Sasnou says Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka may suffer the same consequences as Gorbachev, who lost the war against alcohol and a considerable portion of his popularity.

State Also Addicted To Alcohol

A big chunk of state revenues comes from alcohol, and the state cannot afford to lose them. There is also a risk that the measures will stimulate the production of illegal alcohol, as happened under Gorbachev.

A Russian beer company advertising in Minsk (Bymedia file photo)

Dealing with advertising could be even more difficult as most of it appears on Russian commercial television channels, which are widely available in Belarus.

"The biggest share of beer advertising comes from [Russia]," Zaleski says. "It has flooded the market. Teenagers, in their enthusiasm and stupidity, are snared by this advertising and can't be separated from their giant 1 1/2 bottles of beer. The brands of beer on offer are cheap and strong."

No Alternatives, No Support

Sasnou says Lukashenka's government is "fundamentally unable to fight drinking," as the current authoritarian system provides no alternatives for people.

In addition, in authoritarian Belarus, civil society is under pressure, and people are not given much help to deal with the problems of alcoholism.

Alcoholics Anonymous is an international organization that helps people stop drinking. It was banned in the Soviet Union and is not very visible in present-day Belarus either.

"Probably they are very anonymous," Zaleski says. "The problem is that in our country people know nothing about this organization. You don' t see them and cannot hear them."

Alcoholic Anonymous Belarus has only a post-office box on its website, with no telephone number and no address.

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