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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 1, 2006

August 1, 2006, Volume 8, Number 26
AS DRINKING INCREASES, GOVERNMENT DECLARES WAR. 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.

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.

"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.

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.

"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."

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 antialcohol 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.

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.

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 1.5-liter bottles of beer. The brands of beer on offer are cheap and strong."

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, an international organization that helps people stop drinking, 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. (Valentinas Mite)

FORMER U.S. ENVOY SAYS WEST CAN WORK WITH YANUKOVYCH. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Ukraine Service, discusses what the shifting political landscape might mean for Ukraine's future. Pifer, currently a senior adviser at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells correspondent Serhiy Kudelya that it is too early to predict the future course of Ukrainian foreign policy. But he says that in the event that Party of Regions head Viktor Yanukovych becomes prime minister, he believes the U.S. government does not have an "instinctive bias" against working with him.

RFE/RL: Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oleh Shamshur greeted everyone in June 2006 with the announcement of an "Orange coalition" that was to form a new government. Today, the Orange coalition is nonexistent and there is no government. Does Washington have any trust left in Ukrainian politicians?

Steven Pifer: I can't speak for the U.S. government on this, but I don't think it really undermines the confidence in that sense. I mean, politics are very complex. Certainly a month when Shamshur spoke I think it was the expectation of everyone, based on the information at the time, that there would, in fact, be an 'Orange coalition' in the [Verkhovna] Rada. As far as I can tell, pretty much everybody -- both in Ukraine and the United States -- was surprised by Mr. [Socialist Party leader Oleksandr] Moroz's decision to defect [from the Orange coalition] and join with the Regions Party and the Communists.

RFE/RL: But many analysts claim that the main responsibility for the splintering of the Orange coalition lies with President Victor Yushchenko.

Pifer: Clearly now, if you look at the choices that President Yushchenko and Our Ukraine had after the March 26 elections -- where at that point I think it really was in the president's hands to decide whether he would have an 'Orange coalition' or whether he would join with Regions Party -- certainly, the wavering by Our Ukraine and its inability to move quickly in March, April, and May has led to a situation now where they face a different, and a much less attractive set of choices.

RFE/RL: In a recent article, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyst Anatole Lieven characterized the collapse of the Orange Revolution as a geopolitical defeat for the Unites States. Do you agree with such an assessment?

Pifer: I think that geopolitical view is not the way that Washington looks at Ukraine. That's almost suggesting that Ukraine is an object of competition between the West and Russia. And certainly when I was in the U.S. government, people were not looking at Ukraine in those terms. What people saw the Orange Revolution about was the Ukrainian people really making a decisive break with the past -- where they actually took control of their own political destiny. And that's why it was such a moving thing that got so much attention in the West. Now, certainly there's been frustrations and disappointments in what has happened since the Orange Revolution. But I'm not sure at this point, if you are saying there has been now a huge geopolitical switch -- I think it is premature to come to that conclusion.

Certainly, I think that the millions of Ukrainians who went out and protested against the effort to steal the elections in 2004. They still are politically empowered in a way that was not the case prior to 2004. That is a powerful force, and I don't think the political maneuverings are ever going to change that.

RFE/RL: But two participants of the so-called anti-crisis coalition -- the Communists and the Party of Regions -- conducted their election campaign on an anti-American and anti-NATO platform. If they do in fact form a government, are they likely to maintain Ukraine's current foreign-policy course?

Pifer: Now, the question that comes now -- yes, you are going to have presumably with the 'anti-crisis' coalition, if it is affecting the choice of the prime minister and the cabinet, you may have a different policy course, but I think people are going to wait and see, you know, how different is that policy?

First of all, you've seen from President Yushchenko and Foreign Minister [Borys] Tarasyuk their view that Ukraine should continue to pursue a Euro-Atlantic course. Second, it's not totally clear yet what policies that -- if Mr. Yanukovych becomes prime minister -- what policies he would pursue. For example, when he was prime minister in 2002, 2003, 2004 -- at that point he supported the Ukrainian policy of trying to join NATO and trying to join Europe. I think there are elements in the Regions Party, who, while they may not be enthusiastic about joining NATO, would like to see Ukraine draw closer to the European Union. So, I think it's a bit simplistic to conclude that, as a result of the political developments, Ukraine is going to veer off in a totally different direction.

RFE/RL: So you don't expect any deterioration in U.S.-Ukrainian relations if Yanukovych becomes prime minister and the Party of Regions becomes the basis of a new government?

Pifer: The point will be, and this I think is going to be something important, is that if Mr. Yanukovych becomes prime minister it will have been the result of an essentially democratic process, and the U.S. government looks at presidents and prime ministers who come to position as the result of a democratic process in a very different way than those who don't. And, I think, U.S. officials have said they would be prepared to work with whatever government comes out of this process. So, I don't think you have an instinctive U.S. government bias against working with Mr. Yanukovych.