A New Drug is Killing Belarusian Youth
During the three months of 2014, seven young people in Minsk died from eating blotting paper that contained a synthetic drug. A number of teenagers have also been seriously poisoned and ended up in the hospital in various cities across the country.
After a ban on the free trade of poppy seeds was imposed on 1 January 2014, a synthetic drug, also known as 'spice', has made up 70% of the illicit drug market in Belarus. Due to the ease of creating the new narcotic with information readily available on the Internet, its distribution has become extremely difficult to fight against.
However, the authorities recently launched several legislative initiatives to stop the spread of 'spice'.
New Generation of Drugs
Since 2008, the synthetic drug known as 'spice' coming out of Southeast Asia has flooded Europe's illicit drug market. According to Belarusian law enforcement, China, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia produce around 800 tonnes of the synthetic drug annually. The substance reaches Belarus either in ready-to-smoke blends, in powder form, on blotting paper or as a pure substance that dealers can prepare for usage domestically.
The success of the spice trade can be attributed to the legal status of the substance in Belarus. Producers create new compounds as soon as the authorities are able to ban the old ones. In order to ban a new compound they have to go through a lengthy legislative process. Until the ban is introduced, dealers can sell them without any fear of legal repercussions or subsequent punishment.
Another reason for the rapid growth of their sale is the ease of selling them through the Internet, the primary conduit of their distribution. Police block web sites which sell spice, but new ones pop-up as fast as they can take them down.
Putting an end to their sale is further complicated by the fact that many of the web sites registered abroad and purchases are made with e-money transfers.
Spice is highly poisonous and inflicts irreversible damage to the health of its users, with the most notable impact being seen on users' brains. As a result of a kind of psychosis that comes about from using the drug, people can become volatile and become a physical danger to themselves and others.
The drug's cooks do not evenly distribute dosages when preparing it, so dosages can vary significantly from batch to batch, making it impossible to predict which one could be fatal to its users.
Hundreds of young people have gone through rehabilitation for their spice addiction in recent years. Many find themselves returning to rehabilitation facilities again and again. And while a good portion of addicts are forced into a rehabilitation programme by their parents, usually law enforcement initiates spice users into a programme of treatment. In 2010 ten patients with what was diagnosed as "acute psychosis" underwent rehabilitation for using the synthetic drug, while in 2013 some 380 people underwent treatment.
The main consumers of spice are young people, including school and university students. Poppy opiate addicts, on the other hand, were typically age 25 and up. Of the seven who have died as a result of the use of spice in Minsk, all were schoolchildren and students with clean histories and no previous record of drug use or criminal activity. Their sudden deaths has generated shock waves throughout Minsk's community of parents.
Minsk police receive hundreds of calls with reports of school children taking spice. “Children come to their classes high – and these are the best students with a spotless background,” says Liudmila Špakoŭskaja, a doctor at the Minsk Narcological Dispensary. Generally, parents are able to detect the problem only when it is too late.
School employees were afraid to report drug use in the past. They feared their schools garner a bad reputation and being punished for having a poor anti-drug education programme. However, in 2013 police began to realise the seriousness of the problem and started to cooperate more closely with schools. The Ministry of Education also joined the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Healthcare in the anti-spice war in 2013.
Over 26 – 29 March, the authorities held a Belarus-wide "Stop Spice" campaign which informed young people on the medical and legal consequences of using the drug and narcotics in general. Teachers were trained to detect drug use among students and parents were informed on how to restrict access to web sites that distribute spice.
Authorities Declare War on Spice
The Belarusian police boasts of having the most extensive list of illegal drugs among the post-communist countries and the fastest procedures of banning new substances. Despite this, spice trade continues to thrive in Belarus. Still, with a new compound appearing nearly every week in 2013, efforts to combat the distribution of spice were failing.
Finally the Belarusian authorities realised the ineffectiveness of its policy of banning compounds with new ones constantly appearing on the market. As part of this process of review, the government decided to take a look at the experience of the US and EU. There, the authorities ban the basic ingredients that are used to make various drugs, eliminating the necessity of banning a new compound each time one appears. Belarusian policymakers are currently on the verge of adopting a law which bans 18 basic ingredients to produce spice.
The Supreme Court has also joined in the anti-drug campaign and suggested making the potential punishment for drug production and distribution much more severe. The Parliament decided to elaborate on an amendment in its Law on Narcotics and adopt it as soon as possible.
The creation the Anti-Narcotic Interagency Committee would allow the ban on the new substance to come into force in a few days, but Belarusian MPs are complaining that Customs Union's legislation is impeding the process. Under Customs Union law, there is a different procedure of dealing with narcotic substances.
Law enforcement has also suggested that web sites who sell drugs should be blocked by the government for all Internet users residing in Belarus. At the moment, the government is only able to legally block these kinds of web sites inside the confines of state institutions and organisations.
Will Belarus Become Drug-Free?
The typical distribution scheme is as follows. Information on drugs and prices appear on the Internet, the buyer discusses the details with the dealer via Skype. Then the buyer makes an e-money transfer, the dealer makes a delivery, known locally as a "laying" – he puts the drugs in a certain place and informs the buyer where they can pick them up. The police are naturally targeting wholesale dealers who deliver the drug to petty distributors.
On 1 March, the police detained a 37-year old man in a car who was allegedly in possession of a half-kilo of spice. Later on, he allegedly revealed his cache under a city bridge to investigators that held another 13 kilos.
Finally, the police searched his residence, and found nearly 300,000 pieces of blotting paper and 100 grammes of pure spice, as well as a laboratory in his garage with a large amount of the drug.
The police believe him to be Minsk's main supplier and dealer. Several other groups that have dealt in spice were also detained in Babrujsk and Hrodna recently.
It seems like the Belarusian authorities are determined to try to take spice completely off of the streets, but even at the moment of writing, one can still buy spice online. If the new legal initiatives prove to be successful, Belarus may soon become a drug-free country, or at least 'spice'-free.
Ukraine Can Help Belarus with Exemptions in the Eurasian Economic Union
The presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia plan to sign the founding treaty of the Eurasian Economic Union in May 2014.
With the signing less than two months ahead, the parties cannot reach a compromise on a number of contested issues, such as trade exemptions.
Belarus seeks to abolish oil exemptions. This will mean an additional $3-4 billion for the country’s revenues at the expense of the Russian budget.
The crisis in Ukraine can impact the negotiation process in unpredictable ways. On the one hand, Belarus may have extra leverage over the Kremlin as Moscow, more than ever, needs good news from its Eurasian front. On the other hand, Russia’s Crimea campaign undermines its economy and ability to finance its integration project.
Eurasian integration resembles a race where each participant tries to demonstrate its ability to run at a faster pace than everyone else. The summits of the Eurasian troika (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia) usually witness calls by the leaders of the states to accelerate their integration. As a result, the integration agenda has in less than five years come a long way from the Customs Union to the Common Economic Space to the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU). The latter may become fully functional as of 1 January 2015.
For that to happen, the three countries need to prepare and sign the founding treaty of the EaEU. They have set the deadline for May. However, more and more evidence suggests that they will fail to settle all of the outstanding issues in the time remaining before the deadline.
In 2013, against the backdrop of a rush towards integration, the Belarusian and Kazakhstani leaders started to voice serious concerns about the depth and strength of the integration project. At the summit in Minsk last October, they both emphasised several fundamental problems in the economic and political realms.
Economically, Eurasian integration fails to fulfil even the criteria of a customs union, not to mention a common economic area. According to the President of the Eurasian Economic Commission Viktor Khristenko, the Customs Union still has about 600 exemptions that restrict the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour force inside the union. Thus, the previous integration stages remain incomplete, yet the Kremlin already wants to move on the next step.
Politically, Russia tries to subdue the supranational institutions of the Eurasian integration and bring it under its full control. In the words of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the officials of the Eurasian Economic Commission should work independently from the national governments they represent but the Kremlin demands full loyalty from the Russian nationals there. What's more, Russia negotiates with prospective new members of the integration (e.g. Armenia) without proper consultations with either Belarus or Kazakhstan.
Back in October 2013, the leaders of the troika agreed that their governments would work to resolve these issues before signing the documents on establishing the EaEU. But a summit on 5 March in Moscow showed that such an agreement did not materialise.
The draft treaty establishing the EaEU consists of two parts: an institutional and a functional element. The latter raises particular concerns. According to Aliaksandr Lukashenka, only about 70-80% of the draft is ready to be signed. The rest includes the most sensitive economic issues, which remains unsettled.
Belarus’ oil interest
The central controversy relates to the exemptions from the ‘four economic freedoms regime’. Kazakhstan has a strong interest in abolishing restrictions on its access to Russian transportation networks, primarily to the pipeline system used to export hydrocarbons to Europe. And Belarus wants to get rid of the standing exemptions in oil trading.
According to a bilateral agreement, Belarus has to transfer all export duties on oil products produced from Russian oil and sold to a third country to Russia’s state budget. The price tag of this issue for Belarus amounts to $3-4 billion. In 2013, Belarus transferred $3.3 billion worth of export duties to Russia’s account. This year it might well reach $3.5-4 billion.
If this money stayed in Belarus it would essentially improve the nation's current balance. Last year, Aliaksandr Lukashenka even promised that he would turn the country into another Emirate if he had the duties on oil products at his disposal. The upcoming 2015 presidential campaign and the poor economic outlook only reinforce this desire.
Thus, the Belarusian authorities are doing their best to negotiate the abolition of the exemption while drafting the EaEU’s founding treaty. Officials in Minsk are resorting to both behind-the-scenes diplomacy and public statements to convince the Kremlin. For example, a couple weeks ago the Head of the External Economic Policy Department of the Ministry of Economy Raman Brodau called Russia’s approach to calculate its losses from the Eurasian integration “fundamentally wrong".
Russia's position in Light of Crimea
The Russian government does not, of course, volunteer to give into its partners’ demands. On 26 March the First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Igor Shuvalov stated that the exemptions problem goes beyond gas and oil. According to him, Russia’s economy also suffers from certain exemptions introduced by Kazakhstan and Belarus. In particular, he named such goods as medicine, tobacco, alcohol and seafood.
Shuvalov opined that the three states are “so remote from finding mutual understanding and a common denominator regarding these goods that, perhaps, they will have to put them aside and negotiate after May, after the treaty is signed."
At the moment, this looks like the most likely option. The leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan seem ready to undersign the EaEU’s founding treaty in May and to continue negotiations afterwards. But only if the Kremlin promises concessions. And here the Ukrainian factor may come into play.
Considering Russia's growing international isolation, Putin desperately needs good news on the Eurasian integration front. Under such circumstances, Belarus and Kazakhstan gain additional leverage in their negotiations with Moscow. The more intense the isolation the Kremlin faces, the more it has to pay its integration partners for loyalty.
At the same time, the annexation of Crimea will be quite costly for Russia. Preliminary estimates state that the new subject of the Russian Federation will roughly require $4-5 billion in annual subsidies. Moreover, Russia’s economy will suffer substantial losses as a result of capital outflow and a lack of foreign investment after its Crimean campaign. The former already claimed $75 billion in the first quarter of 2014. Under this kind of pressure, Russia might simply become unable to finance its Eurasian integration dream.
With all that is happening, politics within the Eurasian integration has become a particularly exciting development to watch. Post-soviet politics is getting as unpredictable as ever.