Lukashenka Hammers Drug Dealers and Users with a Tough Decree
Starting 1 January 2015, Belarusians can no longer use e-money services with operations based inside the country. A presidential decree signed on 28 December requires all domestic e-money service account holders to provide authentic identification information.
Controlling e-commerce is Minsk's first major move in the war on drugs. Electronic accounts were popular among drug dealers who received transactions anonymously.
The presidential decree also strengthened punishment for drug trafficking, with sentences ranging of up to 25 years, and introduced measures sanctioning intoxication. The new law targets a synthetic drug called 'spice', which has had disastrous consequences in Belarus in recent years.
A more comprehensive approach to the problem is needed, however. Promoting youth development and education should be a part of any long-term response to drug addition. Additionally, the lack of public debate on drugs contributes to a distorted public perception of the scale of the problem.
A Major Step in the War on Drugs
According to the 14 January statement by the Head of the Department on Drug Trafficking, since 2014 Belarusian hospitals have accepted 1,351 people with overdoses, 32 of whom subsequently died. More than a thousand of these people consumed spice. In 2013 alone 800 such patients appeared in the hospitals, suggesting a striking increase in 2014. These statistics motivated the adoption of the anti-drug decree, said one official.
In January 2014, after a poppy seed ban came into effect, police reported a considerable reduction in the consumption of opiates. However, the problem of synthetic drugs, locally known as "spice", remained at critically high levels. Spice has overtaken the market share of opiates, easily spreading among the youth.
The police could do little to counter the problem due to the lack of necessary laws and equipment. Some police departments had no Internet access and thus were unable to monitor online drug trade.
In December 2014 Lukashenka called a meeting on combating illicit drug trafficking. He made some far-reaching propositions, going as far as to say, “We should create unbearable conditions for [drug traffickers] in prisons. Let us create for them a regime where they would, I'll say it plainly, beg for death”.
Lukashenka also suggested establishing LTPs (sanatorium labour centres) for drug addicts. “We should not treat in hospitals, where normal people are being treated, but in institutions where they [drug addicts] have time only to sleep and work,” he said.
The final text of the law did not contain any of Lukashenka's proposed measures, suggesting that they were meant primarily for public ears. However, punishment for drug-related crimes have indeed become more severe. The decree also included measures to tackle the online channels of drug trafficking.
Harsh Punishments for Drug Dealers
The decree raised the maximum sentence for various kinds of drug trafficking crimes to up to 25 years. It also lowered the age of criminal liability in drug cases to 14 years.
Taking into account the scale of synthetic drug usage in Belarus, many experts approve of tougher punishments for dealers. The human rights centre “Platform” stated that “as the problem of drug use in Belarus has become so critical, our centre supports all of the initiatives for stricter punishment for dealers”.
A Minsk lawyer Hanna Dakućka said that she usually opposes tougher punishment, but since drugs are becoming a national catastrophe, she agrees with increasing prison terms for the drug trade.
So far, the government has focused on deterring trafficking, which is only one side of the problem. No preventive measures were taken. In particular, the authorities are unable to provide proper leisure infrastructure and education that could prevent youngsters from taking drugs. This problem hardly ever appears in government debates. The reason for this is that Belarus lacks youth policy.
To be sure, the possibility of spending two decades in jail may make a seasoned criminal think twice about engaging in drug trade. Young people, however, tend to realise their mistakes only after they have wound up behind bars. And it is precisely the youth who represent the majority of offenders, not the seasoned criminals.
The decree made appearing in public place in a state of intoxication a misdemeanour; a repeat offence is now considered a felony. The degree also established fines for the owners of nightclubs and casinos who turn a blind eye to drug use or trade inside their businesses.
Liudmila Truchan, a representative of the civil association Positive Movement, which helps HIV-positive people and injecting drug users, opposes this aspect of the decree. “They are people with an illness and they will not cease to be them if they receive fines for their drug use”, she said.
The head of the civil association Mothers Against Drugs Iryna Lukjanovič disagrees. In her opinion, the possibility of finding oneself in jail may push an addict towards rehabilitation, which they have so far sought to avoid.
The law also introduced a series of thorough controls on the online drug trade. Police now can shut down any web site suspected of promoting drugs. The Ministry of Internal Affairs created a cyber intelligence unit which will combat online drug crime. The law imposed additional responsibilities on the owners of the Internet resources. Now providers will have to monitor all of their content in order to prevent the spread of drug trafficking and to inform the police whenever a potential case arises.
The decree also requires obligatory identification for all e-money accounts that have payment systems and work within Belarus. This measure has already led to some results within the first days of decree's coming into force.
Web Sites and E-money Accounts Closed
Most electronic payment systems have halted their operations because of the decree. Payment terminals have also stopped using electronic account services such as Belqi, EasyPay, and WMB. The systems are apparently undergoing restructuring, which will include the necessary identification verification procedures as required by the law.
The decree also affected gift card services previously offered by three Belarusian banks. In the past, anyone could buy a gift card with a particular sum of money and give it as a present to friends or family. This card, unlike a regular credit or debit card, did not identify its holder by name.
Now anyone who has received a gift card needs to verify their identity. The banks are complaining that under the new law gift cards are no longer profitable and the service has to be halted.
Requiring identification for every e-transaction can certainly hamper drug dealers' business, but it will by no means stop them. People can rely on e-services based outside of Belarus, such as PayPal. What the law might do instead is increase the amount of cash used in drug business, with smaller transactions bundled into larger ones. One way or another, dealers will find ways to bypass these obstacles.
The coming months will show whether drug dealers with a good grasp of modern technology can outwit the authorities and continue on with lucrative trade. What is certain, however, is that the decree will destroy many young lives by putting the youth experimenting with drugs into prison for decades.