Opinion: Cannabis Reform in Belarus?
On 17 February 2018, a group of young Belarusians holding a banner reading ‘Legalize Belarus’ gathered on Independence Avenue in the heart of Minsk. The group was campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana in Belarus, a proposition that, at least for now, seems unlikely to attract support from the public or government officials.
Why reform is needed
The perception of cannabis use in Belarus has been largely shaped by Soviet-era misinformation and anti-cannabis propaganda disseminated by the Lukashenka government. Adding to the stigma of cannabis use is the fact that Belarus has some of the harshest drug laws in Europe and its penal code makes no distinction between categories of drugs.
This means that possession of cannabis is prosecuted (and perceived by the public) in much the same way as possession of heroin. With Belarus’s draconian drug laws having a permanently detrimental impact on the lives of untold numbers of youth due to simple cannabis possession, those advocating for legalisation would likely consider any measure of decriminalization a success.
On Legalize Belarus’s website it states that more than 15,000 people are currently in prison in Belarus for drug-related crimes. The majority of those convicted are serving 5-8 year sentences with many working as forced-labourers in prison camps. In an article posted in January 2017 on Belarus Digest, Alesia Rudnik noted that in Belarus a conviction for drug possession can carry a significantly heavier prison sentence than even criminal acts of paedophilia.
In clear cases of petty possession, Belarusian prosecutors tend to always push for trafficking charges, as this guarantees a minimum prison sentence of 5-years. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities’ intolerance of both drugs and dissent puts participants in organisations and events supporting the decriminalisation of cannabis at risk for steep fines and up to 15 days in jail for their activities.
As part of instilling a fear of cannabis into the minds of Belarusian children, the government occasionally holds trials of accused (though soon to be convicted) cannabis users in public locations such as schools. In the Fall of 2017, a 30-year-old woman charged with ‘storing hash’, was sentenced to three years of ‘restricted freedom’. The trail was held in the classroom of a school in Minsk while students watched.
And while three years of ‘restricted freedom’ was a mere slap on the wrist by Belarusian standards, this case was an outlier. Show trials and unreasonably long prison sentences undoubtedly serve as powerful deterrents against cannabis use amongst Belarusian youth, especially when the accused are tried and convicted in schoolrooms full of children.
Cannabis in neighbouring states
Even in comparison to the Russian Federation’s cannabis laws, Belarus is far stricter. In Russia, possession of 6 grams or less of cannabis is prosecuted as an administrative offence, the Russian equivalent of a misdemeanour. In Ukraine possession of up to 5 grams and the cultivation of up to 10 plants for personal consumption is also classified as an administrative offence. Of Belarus’s neighbours, it is Poland who has been the most progressive in terms of cannabis reform and in 2017 legalised medical marijuana. Moreover, nearly 80% of Poles were in favour of the legislation, a level of support that would be difficult to imagine in Belarus.
In 2017, even the production of industrial hemp, a plant that contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, was made illegal. Since industrial hemp has a wide range of practical uses, particularly in the production of textiles and paper products, and no potential to be abused as an illicit substance, outlawing the crop seems to have been a hysterical reaction on the part of the government rather than a serious measure to protect public health. If, however, the Lukashenko regime is shielding Belarusians from cannabis and industrial hemp due to health concerns, they may be focusing on the wrong substance.
Cannabis vs. alcohol
In Belarus, like much of Eastern Europe, alcoholism is a significant health crisis that seems to affect, at least in some way, nearly every family in the country. Based on current statistics coming from the U.S., the legalisation of medical marijuana appears to result in a substantial decrease in alcohol consumption.
In fact, a study published in 2017 found that in states where both medical marijuana and alcohol are sold, the legalisation of medical marijuana had reduced alcohol sales by an average of 15%. Of course, this only sounds like good news to those who view marijuana as significantly safer than alcohol for one’s overall health and wellbeing.
With its never-ending financial crises, if Belarus’s authoritarian government is to be persuaded on the issue of cannabis reform, it will likely be due to economics, not ethics. In 2015, just one year after recreational cannabis became legal for purchase in Colorado, the state’s marijuana tax revenues were three times greater than those from alcohol sales.
Additionally, though Colorado has a population of just 5.5 million, from 2014-2017 the state’s total tax revenue from cannabis sales was $506m. With sales from government-owned alcohol companies accounting for approximately 80% of Belarus’s alcohol sales, advocates for cannabis legalisation in Belarus will likely need to make their case to the authorities by presenting cannabis as a more profitable and less dangerous alternative to alcohol.
Michael Dorman holds an MA from the University of Texas at Austin’s Centre for Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies. His research interests include WWII and the Holocaust in Belarus, post-Soviet Belarusian politics, and current social issues in Belarus.
Belarusian language: declining in state education, strengthening in civil society
Only 13% of pupils in Belarus study in the Belarusian language. The authorities therefore roused great public interest with a recent promise to establish Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens in each district in Minsk.
At present, the near impossibility of receiving pre-school education in the Belarusian language concerns some parents. Others cling on to even the slightest possibility of ensuring their children’s education in the Belarusian language. Yet others wonder why the question arises at all – thinking that it would be better to teach students English or Chinese.
The rapid disappearance of the Belarusian language from the education sector (from 19% in the 2010/2011 academic year to 13% in 2017/2018) paradoxically coincided with the increasing popularity of various kinds of Belarusian cultural initiatives and projects.
Russian language dominates the education system
The reduction in the number of pupils studying in Belarusian stands in tension with the growing interest in Belarusian language and culture in society. Founded several years ago, Belarusian language courses under the “Mova Nanova” initiative gather hundreds of people in Minsk and other Belarusian cities. Crowdfunding enables the publication of Belarusian-language books and the translation of movies into Belarusian. Inscriptions on the jerseys of Belarusian football players increasingly appear in Belarusian. The education system in Belarus, however, still shows signs of Russification rather than Belarusisation.
Fewer and fewer children today study in Belarusian. Of the six regional centres, Belarusian-language schools exist only in Minsk. In some of the regional cities schools do have small Belarusian-language forms. However, most of the Belarusian-language schools are located in villages. Totally only 13.3% of all pupils study in Belarusian according to the National Statistical Committee of Belarus.
The situation looks more problematic in pre-school and higher education. Belarusian-language kindergartens represent a minority among the preschools. In the biggest cities there exist only small groups with the Belarusian language. Until now, Belarus has no university providing a Belarusian-language education.
The problem of access to the Belarusian-language education grew in importance for Belarusian society. On 21 February, International Mother Language Day, a group of parents in Minsk visited the Ministry of Education to discuss pre-school education in the Belarusian language. During the meeting, parents proposed the introduction of more Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens and schools. Later, the Ministry of Education promised to open a Belarusian group in each Minsk region.
Parents struggle for more education in Belarusian
To date parents have to fight for the education of their children in the Belarusian language. Increasingly, parents collect signatures for the creation of Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens and schools. On 21 February, public activists of the Young Front collected 2,000 signatures in Minsk for creating a Belarusian-language university.
Occasionally, local authorities meet with parents to discuss the status of the Belarusian language in education, as happened on 21 February. One of the participants of the meeting, Volha Kavalchuk, told to Radyjo Svaboda that her child can not get into a group with Belarusian as the language of instruction. “Due to the shortage of Belarusian speakers, kindergartens take in Russian-speakers, who become a majority later,” and the group becomes a Russian-speaking one.
Belarusian-language parents worry that their children gradually shift into the Russian language from studying in a Russian-language system. At the meeting of pro-Belarusian parents with the Ministry of Education on 21 February, parents noted that groups exist only in certain areas of the city and that this is logistically inconvenient for many parents. Often, as is the case in the Pershamajsky district of Minsk, different age groups emerge. These factors influence the quality of teaching; many parents have to send their children to Russian-language kindergartens.
How has the status of the Belarusian language in education changed?
Since Alexander Lukashenka came to power, the Belarusian language began a gradual decline in the education system. In 1994-1995 more than 75% of pupils studied in Belarusian. After the referendum in 1995, when the Russian language received the same status as Belarusian, the latter started to disappear from education. From that moment on, many Belarusian schools and kindergartens began to teach partially in Russian.
In the years after the collapse of the USSR Belarus’s neighbours, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine, actively worked on the transition of schools into teaching in the national language. In contrast, from 1995 the Belarusian authorities embraced a Russification of education system. The titular language of Belarus appeared as a threat to the authorities. Lukashenka saw the main threat to his power in the Belarusian-speaking opposition and methodically narrowed the space for studying the language and culture. Whereas 22% of pupils studied in Belarusian in 1988, the comparable figure for 2017 was 13.3%.
In recent years, after events surrounding Ukraine’s Maidan, the Belarusian language situation within the education system started to improve in small steps. Observing Russian aggression in Ukraine, the authorities began to demonstrate more support to the Belarusian language and national history at different levels, so-called “soft Belarusisation”. However, until now, soft Belarusisation hardly affected schools, kindergartens and universities.
The fate of Belarusian language: in citizens’ hands
Social activists continue to do the most work promoting the Belarusian language. For example, recently created initiative, Perakladaton, has translated the civil code into Belarusian with the help of volunteers and plans to translate other laws (only 3% of legislative acts in the country are written in Belarusian).
Social activist Ihar Sluchak has long communicated with the Belarusian government and commercial organisations, trying to force them to speak Belarusian. Recently an online catalogue of Belarusian businesses and services, SVAJE, appeared. Regular updates include new businesses and places where the staff speak Belarusian.
This work of social activists partly compensates for the poor condition of the Belarusian language in the education system. However, some positive signals appear from the government. For the first time the authorities have allowed the holding of a celebratory concert on Alternative Independence Day in the centre of Minsk. If the concert does not bring police detentions, then it might give some hope that the “soft Belarusisation” will extend into Belarusian schools, kindergartens and universities.