August 1, 2006, Volume
GOVERNMENT DECLARES WAR ON ALCOHOL.
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 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.
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 1/2 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 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. (By Valentinas Mite. Originally published on July 26.)
SUPPRESSING HIZB UT-TAHRIR COULD RADICALIZE YOUTH.
Central Asian governments have spent years engaged in high-profile efforts to repress membership of the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Some observers are warning that harsh repression could prompt Hizb ut-Tahrir's members to take up arms -- they also suggest that young members compose the group's hard core.
It is virtually impossible to estimate the size or composition of Hizb ut-Tahrir's membership in Central Asia. The movement is banned in most places. But some observers say anecdotal evidence suggests the group's core of younger members is growing.
Vitaly Ponomaryov runs a human rights monitoring program that focuses on Central Asia for the Moscow-based nonprofit group Memorial. He says circumstantial evidence points to desperate youths who turn to Hizb ut-Tahrir out of frustration with the system -- in Uzbekistan, for instance.
"If we look at trials, and also based on my own meetings [with Hizb ut-Tahrir members], most members of Hizb ut-Tahrir are young people who do not see future of their country within the system created by [Uzbek] President Islam Karimov," he said.
Twenty-nine alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members are currently on trial on charges related to the group's activities in Uzbekistan. The youngest of those defendants is 19, and most of the others are under the age of 30.
Uzbekistan is ruled by one of the region's most repressive regimes, which has conducted a long-running campaign to prosecute Hizb ut-Tahrir sympathizers. It also appears to have a relatively high number of Hizb ut-Tahrir members. But neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan have also banned Hizb ut-Tahrir.
In Kyrgyzstan, former President Askar Akaev used to allow Hizb ut-Tahrir members to organize informational and even charitable events despite the ban. Due to fears of increased Hizb ut-Tahrir sympathy, current President Kurmanbek Bakiev has cracked down on such activities. Bakiev now says Hizb ut-Tahrir is a militant group that should be eliminated.
Kyrgyz authorities say there are recent signs of cooperation between Hizb ut-Tahrir and an avowedly violent Islamist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). They cite events in southern Kyrgyzstan, where police reportedly found weapons in Hizb ut-Tahrir hideouts.
Kyrgyz National Security Service official Talant Razzakov spoke recently to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. He implied an ideological and operational link between Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU. "Only those who 'graduated' from the [Hizb ut-Tahrir] school can subsequently join the IMU," he said. Hizb ut-Tahrir representatives have consistently rejected violence as a tool, and say they have no ties to the IMU.
Sultonbek Badalov is a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Jalal-Abad, in southern Kyrgyzstan. Speaking to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, he claims there is animosity between the two organizations, and cooperation is therefore out of the question.
"[Violence] is absolutely alien to us," he said. "Many say [Hizb ut-Tahrir] is with the IMU, led by Tahir Yuldosh. Recently Tahir Yuldosh released [audio] disks on which he spoke out against us. [Mutual cooperation] is absolutely impossible, as it goes against our ideology and our principles."
Observers warn that the factors that contribute to recruitment of new Hizb ut-Tahrir members in the region remain.
Aalybek Akunov is a professor of political studies at Kyrgyz National University. He tells RFE/RL that poverty and high unemployment encourage young people in the areas around the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border to join.
"The main reason is, of course, an economic one -- poverty among people living in that area," Akunov said. "There are many unemployed people. The economic future is precarious. There is despair and exhaustion. They are tired of waiting for changes in government policy on both sides [of the border]." Akunov warns that Hizb ut-Tahrir ideas will continue to resonate unless economic problems are solved.
But Memorial's Ponomaryov says there is more than simply economic hardship to blame. He says a lack of political and other freedoms plays a significant role.
"The situation in which there is unjustified repression by the authorities, the fabrication of criminal charges -- when people see clear injustice, they start perceiving repressed people as victims of the fight for justice," he said. "They get a sense of solidarity. Some of them start saying, 'If justice can't be achieved by peaceful means, more radical ways should be found.' In this regard, Uzbekistan is a highly illustrative example. There, repression begun by [President] Karimov in late 1990s became the main instrument of destabilization in the whole region."
Hizb ut-Tahrir member Badalov insists that government repression has increased the group's popularity. "The people have already seen the governments' slander against us," he said. "They understood that it is slander and provocation. The authorities can blame us, but the people already know very well that we won't do anything like [carrying out acts of violence]."
Badalov denies resorting to violence. But could other Hizb ut-Tahrir members take up arms in the future?
Memorial's Ponomaryov says that Hizb ut-Tahrir, as a whole, is unlikely to change its methods. But he warns that many of its younger members might respond to repression with increased militarism, perhaps splitting off from Hizb ut-Tahrir to take up arms against governments in Central Asia. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on July 28.)
DISSIDENT SEES 'INSPIRATION FOR STRUGGLE.'
Prominent Iranian dissident journalist Akbar Ganji said this week that the reformers' "time is not over" and that existing political strictures might provide "inspiration for struggle."
But Ganji, who spent six years in prison over his activities challenging Iranian officials, warned in a Radio Farda interview this week that "democracy and human rights comes with a price tag."
Ganji is a vociferous critic of the country's current leadership and authored a book in 2000 that implicates many senior conservative figures in a spate of political assassinations in the late 1990s.
He said the sometimes fractious Iranian opposition has made "a lot of progress" that allows for increased cooperation to confront powerful conservative elements.
Ganji said senior officials "insist on more power than has been granted by the constitution." He added that "militarists [have been] granted access to the executive power."
But he suggested that official hostility could backfire. "We are now facing an Islamic republic that is exhibiting its utmost power to suppress the democracy movement," Ganji said. "In such a situation, people can better make up their minds and press forward with their demands."
He also said that realities inside Iran and abroad prevent "the regime [from] suppressing all activities."
Ganji reiterated his hopes for democratization in Iran but stressed that "transition to democracy is impossible under the current constitution." He characterized opponents of the current system as divided over the constitutional issue.
"My main problem with [Iran's reformists] is that they still want to work within the framework of the constitution," he said. "This will not work."
Ganji rejected violence, calling it "philosophically impossible and...practically undesirable."
The alternative is "to go for change but not change all the existing structures" through civil disobedience, Ganji said.
He blamed former President Mohammad Khatami for "squandering [a] historical opportunity" after his election on a reformist platform in 1997. He said Khatami declined to exercise the constitutional authority granted to him to prevent hard-liners from curbing political rights and freedoms.
Ganji said that his next aim is to organize widespread protests promoting women's rights and opposing "sexual apartheid" and gender-based discrimination.
Asked about the prominent role on the world stage of fanatical Muslims and his frequent refrain encouraging religious moderation, Ganji said fundamentalists of many faiths pursue a common agenda. "We, the moderate Muslims, who want to promote peace, moderation, friendship, and democracy need to build ties with peace-loving people in the West -- Christian or Jewish -- and form a united front." (Read a complete transcript of the interview with Ganji at http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2006/07/9E3B744B-37C1-44C2-92AB-983A2295E404.html. Originally published on July 28.)
'THEY ARE TRYING TO BREAK HIM.'
Since Mikhail Khodorkovsky was imprisoned three years ago, his wife and their three children have lived in a house in the leafy Moscow suburb of Zhukovka.
The building and the land around it is -- or rather was -- owned by an affiliate of Yukos, the oil company that once made Khodorkovsky one of the richest and most influential men in Russia, Khodorkovskaya explained in a July 25 interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service.
But on May 2 this year, Khodorkovskaya says, a Moscow court impounded the family home, saying it was part of the ongoing investigation into tax evasion at Yukos.
Khodorkovskaya suspects it will not be long before she and the wives of other Yukos executives living in Zhukovka are forced out.
It is part, she says, of the relentless pressure that the authorities are piling on her husband and other Yukos officials.
Khodorkovsky is now incarcerated in a prison camp deep in Siberia. Inna is permitted to visit once every three months. But getting there is a major effort in itself: a nine-hour flight, followed by a 15-hour train journey, followed by a 40-minute car ride.
She is allowed to stay with her husband for three days in a prison hostel that some Russian papers suggest borders on the luxurious. In fact, she insists, they share a simple room furnished with a bed, a chair and a cupboard.
Khodorkovskaya finds her husband much changed -- a consequence, she says, of the psychological, and sometimes physical pressure he is subjected to.
"They're trying to break him, nothing more, nothing less," she says of the prison authorities. "These are methods that have probably long been worked on and refined. I would say that it works on the principle of amplitude. They raise the pressure, then they reduce it and then they raise it again. So there's no straight upward line, they're just trying to drain him."
His biggest difficulty, she says, is the isolation and the mental vacuum caused by his inactivity. But he is finding other ways to fill the gap.
"He reads a lot of religious literature. He's not a religious fanatic, he's not completely mad about religion," she says. "His interest is analytical. He doesn't push faith away, but he has begun to experience it in a new way. If before he approached the subject from a sort of historical point of view, now he feels closer to it."
Khodorkovskaya says she has no doubt that her husband is a political prisoner, sentenced to satisfy the ambitions of the men who now rule the Kremlin.
Khodorkovsky himself -- and many independent critics -- describe his trial as a staged farce and a warning to Russia's immensely wealthy oligarchs to stay out of politics.
The Kremlin disagrees. Khodorkovsky, it says, is a criminal who defrauded the state of a massive sum in taxes.
Inna Khodorkovskaya says she and her husband had feared the state would come after him. Nonetheless, the couple had chosen to stay in Russia.
"It was our joint decision. We talked about whether to stay or go, but the decision was simple. What is there, out there? Of course, no one suggested that things would get quite so bad, but right to the end he intended to stay here. And I did too."
In that respect, she says, nothing has changed. If the authorities force her out of her home, she will stay in Russia. The critical issue now is how to bring up her family in the absence of a father.
But Khodorkovskaya betrays little bitterness.
Both she and her husband have been changed by the experience of the last few years, she says. But they will emerge stronger, she believes.
"There are moments when something serious happens in your life and your values change. And, naturally, recent events... my values have grown stronger, I would say. That's to say, my values have really crystallized," she says. "I can't say that they have changed fundamentally. But his probably have because he used to be in politics. Now he sees what's happening there from a slightly different perspective. Naturally, he has changed greatly.” (Read the complete interview with Khodorkovskaya in Russian at http://www.svobodanews.ru/Transcript/2006/07/30/20060730150017077.html. Originally published on July 31.)