Alcohol as a Tool of Authoritarianism in Belarus
According to the World Health Organisation Belarus holds the first place in worldwide alcohol consumption. Yet the authorities ignore this significant national problem; their recent policies may be making it even worse.
At the end of August, Minsk authorities lifted restriction on selling alcohol between 10 p.m. – 9 a.m. The restriction had come into force just two months earlier. But the Ministry had ordered that all stores should have the favourite drink of Belarusian alcoholics, cheap strong wine, on their shelves, which undermined the restriction.
Despite a huge problem with alcoholism in Belarus, the authorities seem unwilling to implement anti-alcohol policies consistently. They use it both as a tool to calm social discontent and the government benefits from this tremendously profitable business through tax. No wonder that on the election days polling stations are well-stuffed with cheap alcohol.
Was It Merely an Experiment?
On 25 August Belarusians were surprised to learn that the government removed the time restriction for selling alcohol between 10 p.m. – 9 a.m., which it had introduced two month earlier.
This step took place a few days after Lukashenka's meeting with top officials to discuss the production and sale of alcohol. He criticised the government for export decreases and the growing shadow market. Alcohol has been traditionally a lucrative sector for the state budget. But it has thinned because increasingly the private sector has occupied a large share of the market. Likewise, counterfeit Russian alcohol has infiltrated Belarus, especially into Belarus's eastern regions. The Ministry of the Interior estimated the shadow annual market of counterfeit alcohol at $200 m.
The Ministry of Trade's shortly thereafter ordered all alcohol stores to sell Belarusian the lowest quality wine that is produced in Belarus (known as charnila). For a long time the Ministry of Interior and the Health Ministry have long struggled to ban this product.
Moreover, at the end of September the deputy Minister of Trade Viačaslaŭ Drahun revealed that restrictions on the Internet sale of cigarettes and alcohol may end in the near future. “This restriction narrows the possibilities of citizens who prefer online purchases, and also impedes trade for domestic producers of alcohol”, the official said. Since 2005 Internet trade of cigarettes and alcohol has been illegal in Belarus.
Alcoholism Still a Big Problem
In 2014 the World Health Organisation reported that Belarus has maintained the first position in the world on alcohol consumption, with 17,5 litres of pure alcohol per capita. 170,000 alcoholics are officially registered, accounting for 1,8% of the whole population. But health experts say the actual number of abusers could be ten times that number.
According to the General Prosecutor's office report in 2014, intoxicated offenders commit 80% of murders in Minsk region. In May 2015 the police reported that the number of domestic murders rose by 67% compared to 2014, and in 90% cases it happened as a result of drinking. The statistics for grave injuries also show that in 80% of cases the offenders consumed alcohol.
Alcohol remains one of the major reasons for high suicide rates, as Belarus traditionally is close to the top position of number of suicides worldwide. It also causes high rates of orphanage, because the authorities tend to take children from alcoholic parents in most cases. Obviously a huge problem for the whole nation, alcoholism requires immediate and serious measures. But the policies to combat alcoholism look very inconsistent in Belarus.
Controversial Alcohol Policies
The Ministry of Interior, the General Prosecutor's office and the Health Ministry lobbied firmly for anti-alcoholism policies, while producers insisted on the opposite.
In 2011-2015 the government has been implementing the national programme for combating alcoholism. The official statistics claim the programme has yielded visible results: the annual consumption of alcohol fell from 12,22 to 10,47 litres of pure alcohol per capita (the official statistics differ from the WHO as it counts all the population, while the WHO counts only people aged over 15).
Belarus bans sales of alcohol during graduation ceremonies at schools and harvesting time in villages. Companies cannot advertise alcohol except beer in the media and in public places, and drinking in public is an offence. Domestic alcohol prices are only slightly lower than in Poland and Lithuania, and higher than in Russia and Ukraine.
However, easy access to alcohol makes these policies ineffective. While Belarus has one alcohol sale point for 550 people, Poland has one for 12,000 and the Scandinavian countries one for 25,000. Charnila, a cheap strong wine made from apples, remains very popular and protected by the government.
The government has attempted to ban charnila since 2013, but producers apparently persuaded Lukashenka to block the implementation of this measure. “This ban will not work, just think about its consequences”, Lukashenka said in November 2012. Now, every store must have this particular wine on its shelves according to a Ministry of Trade August decree. It means thousands of Belarusians will continue to destroy themselves with low quality alcohol.
The Alcohol Calculation
It appears that the government lifted alcohol restrictions a month before elections and flooded the stores with wine as a conscious political step to calm the population during the ongoing economic crisis.
Belarus's authorities have always applied minimum pressure on society before elections and during economic difficulties. For instance, at the time of 2011 economic crisis alcohol was one of the few products not to increase in price.
Strikingly, unlike countries which ban alcohol sales during elections, in Belarus rich buffets with ridiculously cheap alcohol and food became a tradition at polling stations (photo from the 2015 presidential election).
Political reasons for such a policy seem clear, but the revenues from selling alcohol may play an even greater role. Alcohol producers remain among the top 15 taxpayers in the country, along with oil potash and tobacco companies. 7% of the budget of Minsk comes form alcohol sales. Needless to say this business is extremely profitable and looked after at the highest level of government. Most distilleries are state owned and those few that are private belong to people closely associated with Lukashenka, like Uladzimir Piefcijeŭ.
No wonder that in a currently shaky political and economic environment the authorities use alcohol to its full extent to help Belarusians forget their problems. As usually happens in Belarusian politics, short term benefits prevail over long-term calculation. In this case health and human potential of Belarusians suffer to keep the political status quo.
Minsk – Getting to Know the ‘Hero City’
By any known measure, Minsk paints a vivid tableau of itself as a major European capital city. Vibrant and buzzing with activity, a visitor can nevertheless feel instantly relaxed and at ease upon arrival without even knowing it.
Almost two million people live here. Business and commerce are thriving. Opportunities to experience culture, the arts, entertainment and sport for young and old, visitors and residents alike are everywhere to be found. And at the same time, the atmosphere and ambience suggest a universal feeling of tranquillity.
Visitors need fear no risk of claustrophobia from overcrowded and overbearing buildings closing in on top of each other. Instead, the vista from horizon to horizon presents huge skies, with a real sense of open space. Why is this so?
Rebuilding the ‘Hero City’
For the answer, look no further than the events of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, when Nazi hordes swept across the country, laying waste to everything and everyone in their path. When the Red Army liberated the city on 3 July 1944, virtually no building was left standing. Every element of the social and transport infrastructure had been eradicated. The pre-war population of 300,000 had been decimated. Only 50,000 shell-shocked and battle-weary residents remained, living hand-to-mouth in the bombed-out ruins.
The initial plan to abandon the city and move the capital east to Mahiliou was soon dismissed and instead, in 1945 a major programme of rebuilding and renovation on an unprecedented scale began.
The result is today’s Minsk, the best example of post-war Soviet Union urban planning on a grand scale and one of the most impressive cities in all of the republics of the former USSR.
Many first-time visitors from the West realise soon after arrival that it’s unlike any capital city they have ever visited before. And it’s less than three hours away from London by air.
Getting to Know Minsk
Information about what to do and see is now increasingly easy to find, particularly online. But a new visitor’s search for the heart of a place is best begun with a process of orientation. And by far the best way to do this is to walk the streets. Because only by physically connecting with one’s surroundings is it possible to feel the buzz and the vibe; the sights, the smells, the sounds, the people, the weather and the seasons. An added advantage is that no money changes hands in the process. It’s all free!
My personal recommendation for a walking tour follows more or less a straight line bisecting the city in a north-easterly direction. It begins in Privakhsalnaya Square in front of the impressive railway station and follows Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue all the way to Victory Square, taking in Independence and Oktyabrskaya Squares along the way.
Each square has its own distinct characteristics, but my personal favourite is Independence Square. The sense of space and air here is breathtaking. Many pre-war Stalinist buildings survive, and the old master Lenin remains master of all he surveys from his plinth in front of the House of Government, a building of glorious yet simplistic symmetry.
The iconic and very red Catholic Church of St Simeon and St Helena can also be found here. Look also for the Central Post Office, with its imposing clock.
Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue is the city’s main thoroughfare and the axis around which the great works of reconstruction were designed after the war. Walk north-east from the station along one side of the Avenue to Independence Square, then re-trace your steps back to the station along the other side. Avoiding street furniture and fellow pedestrians, and without stepping into the traffic (!) be sure to gaze up and around the whole time.
There is so much for you to see. Look particularly for the KGB Building and the GUM store. For the best souvenirs in town, shop at Central Bookstore (Tsentralnaya Knigariya) at 19 Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue, where you can find a wonderful selection of glossy pictorial guides, maps, postcards, posters and calendars, all at very reasonable prices.
If the weather is dry, indulge in one of my very favourite pastimes in Minsk – promenading and people-watching. Try Gorky Park, Alexandrovsky Public Garden, Yanka Kupala Park, Central Botanical Gardens, Chelyuskintsev Culture and Leisure Park and my own personal choice, Pobyedy Park, where you will also find the impressive and newly relocated State Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
Food, Drink and Sustenance
If you’re out walking for hours on end, you’re going to need sustenance and regular rest to recharge your batteries. These are my recommendations.
For breakfast or just coffee and cake, try Maya Angliskaya Babushka at 36 Karla Marksa Street. ‘My English Granny’ will of course appeal to many UK visitors! For lunch and while promenading in Gorky Park, visit Family Club restaurant, where the pizza is particularly good.
For dinner, Kuchmistr at 40 Karla Marksa Street is a good option for traditional Belarusian food. And for beer and a good night out, many of my Minsk friends speak very highly of Gambrinus, centrally located at 2 Svobody Square. The food is also good here.
For a slightly off the wall halt amongst the bustle, a visit to the attractive historic Troitskoye (Trinity) suburb down by the Svislach River might include a rest-stop at the Barzha floating restaurant. It tends to be overlooked and is never busy, but the food and service here are consistently good.
These recommendations are all personal ones based on my own experiences. You may perhaps discover better options for yourselves. Right there is the beauty of travel. Go to Minsk with an open mind. You may be surprised by what you find.
Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.