Minsk Police Cracks Down On Prostitution in Elite Clubs

On 20 August, a special police unit arrested two employees of the famous Shangri La Сasino. Investigators suspect them of organising a prostitution services to the casinos' VIP clients.

A similar case happened in 2012, when employees of the elite entertainment centre Dankoff Club were arrested on the same accusations and soon the owner himself also appeared in jail.

Belarusian authorities officially consider prostitution a blatantly illegal activity. Yet despite the high capacity of the state, they are still unable to do away with the problem. The reason may be quite simple: such networks could exist under the "roof" of high officials who have direct or indirect interest in this business.

Prostitution in Shangri La Casino

Shangri La presents one of the largest casinos in Minsk. It serves as a part of Storm International Holdings which runs a number of entertainment businesses worldwide. The company was one of the major players in the Russian gambling market until 2009, when the Russian government banned gambling throughout the country with minor exceptions. Minsk quickly spotted this opportunity and became one of the centres of gambling tourism for rich and venturesome Russians.   

In Shangri La, a former 27-year old prostitute ran the selection of girls for intimate services. She cooperated with the manager of customer service who advertised the girls for VIP clients. The cost of such service reached up to $1,000, and organisers of this scheme took half of the sum for themselves.  

Police report that they have been watching the suspects since 2009 - the year the casino opened. This fact indicates that the security services are spying on the entire gambling industry, but such arrests have been quite rare. It means that either all Belarusian casinos fully comply with the law, or they simply pay off influential officials to secure their illegal affairs. The ridiculousness of the first possibility would lead one to conclude that the latter is true.

The Sex Industry in Belarus

At first sight, the sex industry in Belarus remains rather weak in comparison to other post-Soviet countries. Although prostitution in most remains illegal (with the exception of Latvia), corrupt authorities usually maintain a blind eye to it.

In Belarus, one can hardly spot prostitution on the streets since the  authorities do not tolerate it. But, as the police say, they encounter plenty of branching networks of criminal groups that secretly organise this highly profitable business. Such groups have a division of labour and their own working mechanisms and include taxi drivers, personnel and the managers of hotels, saunas and flats for rent. 

The Betrayal of High Patrons

In September 2012, Minsk saw a range of events unfold that were similar to Shangri La arrest. Initially, the art director and manager of Dankoff Club were arrested and later the owner of the club himself, Jury Dańkoŭ, followed them.

Dańkoŭ himself fully realised the risks connected to his business. As he said in one of his interviews, “from a typical Belarusian bureaucrat's point of view, the gambling business should necessarily involve crime”. Authorities had already made attempts to find offences and violations by his business in 2004, but then Dańkoŭ managed to prove his own innocence.

As some people who knew Dańkoŭ personally reported, he never quarrelled with the authorities and always supported them. Moreover, he had patrons in the security services who control the gambling industry in Belarus. The club was a place where security officers liked to relax, but it is not possible that they were simply unaware of prostitution or similar issues taking place at the club. “Everyone knew that you can come to Dankoff Club and receive a full package of services”, Dańkoŭ's acquaintances say. Eventually, Dańkoŭ got into a conflict with his influential friends over some of the usual issues and they decided to show him who the sets rules in this country. The story seems rather typical for Belarus.

Policemen Also Like Intimate Services

While it comes as no surprise that prostitution exists in luxury entertainment houses, the recent arrest of a Minsk police lieutenant (whose name has not been disclosed) is rather interesting. He is accused of abuse of authority of a peculiar nature – he continuously forced prostitutes to give him their service for free. Presenting himself as an officer of the human trafficking department, he promised them safe work in exchange for free sex. Now he faces up to ten years in prison.

This is just the case of a simple street-level officer. Such practices can occur at a higher level and go unpunished, as  allegedly happened in Dankoff Club. So far, no cases that involve the private lives of any high officials have been filed in Belarus. Instead, official propaganda has used sex scandals to defame “regime enemies”, as was true with the famous 2006 case of a Latvian diplomat: Belarusian TV showed a secretly-made homosexual sex video in which one person was alleged to be a Latvian diplomat, although it did not provide clear evidence. 

The Belarusian authorities maintain an active policy that combats human trafficking. It remains one of the few fields where Belarus has maintained a successful cooperative relationship with the West. For instance, on 19 August an international forum on human trafficking took place in Minsk, and Lukashenka himself met UN Deputy Secretary-General Yury Fedotov to discuss further cooperation. 

But despite the high state capacity, the authorities are still unable to do away with the problem domestically. The reason may be quite simple: such networks could exist under the protection of officials who have some direct or indirect interest in this business. The case of Dankoff Club appears to be exactly such a situation.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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