Drug Dealers Move Online
The Minsk City Court is currently dealing with the high-profile case of a drug-dealing network, known as LegalMinsk.
After its launch in 2011, it grew into the biggest online retailer of so-called 'spice' drugs. According to the prosecution, LegalMinsk infiltrated several law enforcement agencies and aspired to monopolise drug trafficking in Belarus.
Criminals use the open borders to Russia to import the newest psychotropic substances, while persisting gaps in Belarusian legislation allow them to operate with impunity. Gangs also profit from the use of the newest IT technologies and recruitment of corrupt policemen.
Over the last two years, psychotropic substances have turned into a serious issue in Belarus, seriously affecting teenagers and young people. The state is struggling keep new drugs under control with harsher punishments, yet drug-dealing gangs always appear to be one step ahead.
The “case of the 14”
On 3 May 2016, the Minsk City Court sentenced 14 individuals, who organised a drug dealing gang, which had been operating in Minsk and Hrodna for almost two years. It specialised primarily in the online trade in psychotropic substances.
According to the state prosecutor Alena Krupenina, the gang consisted of young people, aged between 17 and 25, most of them unemployed. Now all all of them face prison terms between 10 and 15 years with confiscation of property.
This case unfolded, as the police found 'spice' drugs, stashed in one of the Minsk daycares in December 2015. The use of such hiding places is a common method, which drug dealers choose to avoid direct contact with their customers.
Not all of the gang members knew each other personally, as the group operated online Read more
Not all of the gang members knew each other personally, as the group operated online. High degree of technical skills allowed the criminals to evade the police for a long time. For instance, one of the defendants used Tails, an open-source operation system, designed to secure complete anonymity.
The “case of the 14” reflects recent trends in drug trafficking in Belarus. In 2015, Belarusian police closed more than 100 online stores which sold drugs and psychotropic substances and limited access to another 18 websites under suspicion of drug trafficking. For the first 5 months of 2016, these numbers lie already at 34 and 10 respectively.
Legal until banned?
The defendants in the “case of the 14” had criminal connections to the large drug dealing network, known as LegalMinsk. Currently, this is the most high-profile court case in Belarus, involving 17 accused, among them several KGB agents. The illegal income of the network exceeded $1.5 million.
One of the accused is a former employee of the Central Department of Combating Organised Crime and Corruption, who provided the gang with expert assessment of the drugs. The chief defendant, the 31-years old Kanstancin Viliuga, allegedly controlled the entire drug market in Belarus and opened several branches in Russia.
Viliuga's criminal business imported the newest psychotropic drugs from Moscow under the guise of “legal smoking blends.” He sold them online in Belarus, making sure that these were still not prohibited. The police knew of LegalMinsk activities, as it received complaints that dealers were shamelessly distributing their business cards near subway entrances.
LegalMinsk aspired to monopolise the drug dealing market in Belarus. It had extensive connections in the law enforcement agencies and used these to fight the competition.
In essence, drug dealers profited from loopholes in the legislation, which lagged behind in expanding the list of the prohibited psychotropic drugs. As the the state was catching up in outlawing the newest substances, the gang kept getting rid of the illegal supplies, selling them to the smaller drug dealing groups and procuring more advanced blends.
Even though the prosecution did not have enough evidence to charge the gang members with murder, the officials from the Department of Combating Organised Crime and Corruption are convinced that the gang conducted drug trials on unsuspecting people. In many cases, these led to multiple deaths and injuries.
Legislation catching up with designer drugs
Belarusian legislation battles drug trafficking with harsher punishments. Classified as a felony, drug trafficking can result in 25 years in prison with confiscation of property. The age of criminal responsibility for drug trafficking is now 14 years instead of 16. People, who appear in the public in the state of drug intoxication or consume drugs in the open, face administrative fines.
The issue of drug traffic over the Belarusian-Russian border remains an especially worrying trend, as this border lacks customs controls, allowing for easy drug imports from Russia and Asia. Aiming to cut criminal ties of drug traffickers with the Russian illegal market, Belarus introduced criminal responsibility for transportation of drugs over the state border, punishable with prison terms for up to 12 years.
On 26 May 2016, new regulations targeted transportation of separate medical substances, introduced special penal colonies for drug traffickers, and determined stricter rules for Internet providers to keep the data on web activities of their customers. Belarusian Ministry of Health is now responsible for creating and updating a single database of all drug addicts.
Yet the rates drug-related crimes in Belarus do not seem to subside. In 2015, the law enforcement authorities uncovered 7,356 such crimes. This trend continues in 2016 as well. According to the recent statistical report of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the police already uncovered about 2,900 drug-related crimes in the first 5 months of 2016.
It is evident that drug trafficking business thrives on insufficient border controls, resourcefulness of drug designers, and wide-reaching corruption schemes. Legislation attempts to catch up, yet new laws would be more efficient, if combined with comprehensive educational and prevention campaigns.
Poland Improves Links with Minsk at the Expence of the Opposition?
According to Polish MP Robert Winnicki, Poland should stop funding the Belsat TV channel and improve relations with Lukashenka. Although Winnicki remains a marginal figure in Polish politics, his statement is indicative of a new political climate in Poland.
Many Belarusian NGOs hoped that the new Polish Government, run by the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), would return to its policy of 2005-2007, when it last had control of the government.
At that time, Poland invested heavily in support for Belarusian democracy by creating the Kalinowski Scholarship programme for students experiencing political repression, and Belsat TV, the only independent channel broadcasting for Belarusians.
However, Poland has recently been reducing its level of support for pro-democracy groups and is trying to improve relations with the Belarusian authorities. Currently, the Polish Parliament has two separate groups on Belarus, one of which frequently lobbies to curry favour with Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
The changes in Polish policy cannot be explained only by attempts to improve relations with Belarusian authorities. The lack of chances for democratic changes as well as brutal repression reduces interest in Belarus among many donors, including Polish ones.
Polish support for Belarusian democracy
The change in policy towards Belarus after PiS's victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections took many by surprise.
Belarusian civil activists expected that the new conservative government would return to its previous policy of 2005-2007, when PiS ruled in Poland and played a crucial role in promoting Belarusian democracy. Poland supported Alexander Milinkevich during the 2006 presidential elections and continued to invest heavily in Belarusian democratic projects.
Belsat probably has the largest budget of any project directed at Belarus Read more
A few days after the dissolution of the mass protests of 2006 in Belarus, Poland announced the creation of the Kalinowski scholarship. The program granted Belarusian democratic activists an opportunity to study in Polish universities with monthly scholarships of about $400 – a considerable sum in Poland at the time. A total of 244 students took advantage of this opportunity in 2006, when the scholarship first came in to effect.
A year later, Poland launched the satellite television station Belsat, with probably the largest budget of any project directed at Belarus. In 2007, the channel received about $6m for launch.
The government of the liberal Civic Platform (PO), which began to rule in Poland in late 2007, continued supporting these projects but gradually decreased their size. On the other hand, the liberal Polish government also increased spending on support of democracy in Belarus in 2010-2011, in connexion with the presidential election and the wave of repression which followed.
According to some sources, Poland then became a mega-donor for the presidential campaign of democratic candidate Uladzimir Niakliajeu, making it perhaps the most well-funded political campaign in Belarus so far.
Poland changes its priorities
Despite expectations, PiS has not returned to its old policy and the budgets of projects aimed at democratising Belarus have started to decrease.
Polish authorities have discontinued the Kalinowski Scholarship programme, creating in its place a smaller programme to support researchers without a political focus. Belsat remains uncertain about its long-term funding. In June, Agnieszka Romaszewska, director of Belsat TV, said that she is worried about the financial stability of the channel "due to the "warming of relations” with Belarus as well as a lack of vision for the prospects of such projects as Belsat TV."
Less is known about political groups which previously received money from the Polish authorities. However, according to rumours, the Polish authorities have decreased support for the Belarusian House in Warsaw, which unites Belarusian émigré politicians holding oppositional views.
These changes are taking place as the Polish government tries to improve relations with the Belarusian government. In March, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski visited Belarus and met with Lukashenka. Later, a delegation of the Belarusian parliament came to Warsaw; this was a real achievement for the Belarusian authorities.
The Polish Parliament currently has two groups focused on relations with Belarus. One of them lobbies in support of more democracy projects, while the second supports more cooperation with Belarusian authorities.
A member of the latter group, nationalist MP Robert Winnicki, recently stated that Poland should stop funding Belsat TV and interfering in Belarusian politics. Although Winnicki is a marginal figure, up to this point such views were absent in the public space.
What is behind the policy change
The Polish authorities make no secret of their desire to improve relations with Lukashenka. Unlike other Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia, Poland has no painful historical disputes with Belarus and would like to restore trade. According to official Belarusian data, imports from Poland in 2015 decreased to $ 1.1bn compared to $ 1.5bn in 2014.
At the same time, Polish authorities value Lukashenka’s role in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. On 8 July, during the NATO summit, the Polish Foreign Minister said that "his country would like to be a mediator in rapprochement between Belarus and NATO."
Trade between Belarus and Poland is perhaps currently based on mutual concessions. Among the possible issues which can be worked on, the most realistic and interesting for the parties may be the Polish minority in Belarus, which remains repressed by Lukashenka’s regime.
However, an attempt to improve relations with Lukashenka is not the only explanation behind the change in policy. The lack of prospects for political change as well as a decrease in repression makes Belarus less interesting for many donors. For example, in the last year Belsat lost a quarter of its funding. The money was mainly coming from Western European countries, which redirected the funds to help refugees from the Middle East.
Thus, Poland remained the only donor to Belsat and is now re-assessing whether or not to fund such projects. The conservative government, even if it wanted to, remains unlikely to shut down a project as large as Belsat in which Poland has invested so heavily. But funding smaller and more politicised initiatives are less likely to be perceived as being in Poland's interests.
However, despite the lack of severe repression or significant progress, Poland should continue supporting Belsat and the Kalinowski programme, as they can change the climate of ideas inside Belarus. It remains difficult to assess the impact of these projects, but they have certainly done much to cultivate a Belarusian identity separate from Russia. And even Lukashenka's soft belarusization may not bear fruit if Belarusian civil society has not first strengthened its own national identity with the help of Poland.