Further evidence of post-election torture, beatings, and humiliation uncovered in Belarus

The mass protests erupting in Belarus since the day of the presidential elections, 9 August 2020, have been marked by brutal repression and unprecedented police violence. Security forces have used tear gas, water cannons, and weapons against the protesters. Thousands of people have been detained, arrested and abused, many of whom have been violently beaten and humiliated. The reported instances of police abuse have come as an unexpected shock, though no actions have so far been taken to investigate.

Beatings and humiliation of Belarusian protesters

Belarusian human rights activists have noted extensive evidence of cruelty and unreasonable use of physical force against detainees in police vans and temporary detention centres, as well as during their transportation to other places of detention. Many of those detained for participating in peaceful protests on August 9, 10, and 11 have been kept in inhumane conditions. Some have been tortured and beaten, most have been kept in overcrowded cells: 40-50 people in a cell designed for only 4-6 people, which has made it impossible to sleep at night, as well as to have enough air and space. Throughout their detention, almost no food or water has been provided.

The Human Rights Center Viasna has reported that more than 6,000 people have been detained and their whereabouts have been kept unknown for up to 10 days. At least 450 of the detainees were severely beaten, with many more humiliated and tortured by the police. Viasna, in partnership with the World Organization Against Torture, immediately organised for information pertaining to victims of ill-treatment to be collected, having received hundreds of testimonies confirmed by photos and videos. The majority of those subject to this abuse have been men under 35 years old, though women and a few elderly people have fallen victim to the abuse.

Beatings and humiliation inside police trucks
Many of those released from detention have shared their stories with the media, bringing to light horrifying details of their experience in detention centres and police vans. In some cases, security forces have been forcing protesters to lie on top of each other, continuously beating the top “layer” of detainees until they bleed. Many have reported being forced to sit with their head touching the ground, beaten whenever they tried to change their body position. Some police officers have forced detainees to crawl on their knees in the prison yard, or have been beating them in turn with sticks and humiliating them with insults.

They have repeatedly asked protesters questions such as: “Will you go to the protest again?” or “Who paid you?”, as well as calling them “fascists”, and promising to “teach them how to vote”. This may indicate that special forces have gone through special ideological training in order to enhance their aggression towards the peaceful demonstrators.

Belarusian torture houses

Some of the detention centres have been described as “houses of torture”. In particular, Minsk’s Akrestina prison, where many of the protesters have been brought, has become a symbol of police brutality in Belarus. Hundreds of Akrestina detainees have been released with bruises and severe injuries, relating stories of humiliation, beatings, and torture by the security forces. One of the protesters, DJ Vladislav Sokolovsky, who was held for 10 days for playing the song “Change!” at a pro-government rally in Minsk, claimed to have been beaten in Akrestina by the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Alexander Barsukov. Terrifying screams from behind the fence have been recorded by those lining up outside Akrestina to search for their missing relatives.

Torture of detainees in Minsk
Moreover, at Oktyabrsky district police station, neighbouring residents have posted videos of the police yard, showing severe beating of people lying on top of each other with their hands behind their backs. Other videos show how security forces have taken the detainees out of the building, forced them onto their knees and beaten them with truncheons.

Torture of detainees in Minsk
The majority of the detainees have been so paralysed by fear that they have not dared to express their outrage, fearing collective punishment. Many, terrified by their experience in the detention centres, have refused to talk to journalists.  A lot of arrested people have been transported by ambulance from the detention centres directly to the hospitals, with injuries ranging from fractures and internal bleeding to haemorrhage and ruptured organs. In Gomel, a young man died during his detention.

Condemnation and human rights action

Human right activists believe that these acts of torture and ill-treatment have been systemic, and that police were prepared in advance for such brutal action. More than 600 citizens of Belarus have filed applications to the Investigative Committee because of bodily harm inflicted by the police, and a hundred have filed complaints about beatings in temporary detention centres. Despite numerous and consistent reports of crimes committed by police, the Investigative Committees have neither initiated any criminal proceedings nor detained any of the persons directly involved in the organisation and commission of crimes against peaceful protesters and casual passers-by.

The Human Right Centre Viasna together with the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the World Organization Against Torture and the International Federation for Human Rights have appealed to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture calling for it to intervene regarding the beating and torture of peaceful demonstrators in Belarus.

Within Belarus, as well as in neighbouring countries, celebrities, politicians, journalists, workers of state enterprises and other organisations have publicly condemned the police violence against protesters, calling for security and military forces to stop abusing their power. For instance, at the state-funded National Belarusian Yanka Kupala Theater, actors and directors have collectively tendered their resignation after the theatre director Pavel Latushka was fired for supporting the protesters. Meanwhile, EU leaders have been reluctant to intervene apart from imposing sanctions on certain officials responsible for election-rigging and brutality.

Clearly, the purpose of such a harsh crackdown on peaceful protests has been to seed terror and instil fear in the local population, quelling any desire to come out onto the streets. However, on the contrary, violence has made the state appear as a common enemy, uniting Belarusians and motivating apolitical citizens to stand up against the abuse of power. Doctors, factory workers and artists have begun public protests, whereas a few state TV, government and police employees have left their jobs, feeling morally unable to serve the state. Hence, state-led violence has led only to additional and greater protests, which are now occurring on a daily basis across Belarus.

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Belarusian authorities increase pressure on anarchists

On 26 September, Belarusian secret services raided the apartments of several Belarusian anarchists and environmentalists.

This became yet another case of repression against Belarusian anarchists in recent months. State authorities have been on alert since the outbreak of protests in 2017 against decree № 3, a presidential decree which levies an unemployment tax on Belarusian residents who work fewer than 183 days per year. Anarchist groups took an active and sometimes leading role in the 2017 demonstrations.

The authorities appear uncertain how best to deal with the grassroots, Belarusian anarchist movement. Unlike other contemporary social factions, anarchists represent a close-knit, cohesive and relatively new movement in Belarus. By conducting searches and prosecuting anarchists for their role in protests, the authorities again demonstrate their resolve to suppress social and political activism.

Raiding the apartments of activists

On 26 September, representatives of the Belarusian KGB burst into the apartments of two activists—Marina Dubina, a representative for the Ecadom organisation, and journalist Marina Kastylyanchanka. In addition, well-known anarchist and former political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok reported on his Facebook page that security forces searched the flats of several other anarchists.

One activist said the search of her apartment lasted more than 10 hours. During the long search, the KGB seized computers, books, and money. Some of the activists claim they were assaulted. On 27 September, a special press-conference was organised by Belarusian anarchists groups to draw wider attention to the raids. Anarchists Ihar Truhanovich, Yauhen Dziatkouski, and Alena Nemik shared their experiences about the incidents.

Ihar Truhanovich said the security officers were violent and damaged his belongings. He claims they beat him and stole €500 from him. Other activists said security officers did not explain why they confiscated certain items, such as computers and telephones.

The human rights centre Spring believes search warrants were issued on grounds of hooliganism. In July, a group of anarchists set fire to a billboard in Ivatsevichi, a city in Belarusian region of Brest, that read “The Strength of Law in Its Implementation.”

However, it is doubtful the burning of the billboard is the cause of the raids. Two people, Ihar Makarevich and Kirill Aliakseeu, are already serving sentences for setting the billboard on fire. Another possible explanation is that the KGB raids may be an attempt to maintain an atmosphere of fear among activists.

A new wave of repression against Belarusian anarchists

Pressure on anarchists has became especially noticeable in recent months. Anarchists have become one of the most prominent groups during demonstrations against the “social parasites decree.”

Dozens of anarchists were arrested during the 2017 spring protests. In addition, two representatives of the movement, Ihar Makarevich and Kirill Aliakseeu, received prison terms for a demonstration in Ivatsevichy, the same city where the billboard praising tough law enforcement was set alight.

On 27 August, police detained 15 anarchists on their way to attend a lecture by Russian anarchist Alexey Sutuga in the city of Baranavichy, also in the Brest region. A district court accused two of the detainees and the Russian lecturer of extremism, informs newspaper Nasha Niva.

Anarchists at the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev. Source: revdia.org

On 23 September, anarchists in Kiev began their “Death to the Dictatorship” campaign. They hanged a hand-made effigy of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka on the fence of the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev. The activists pointed out that both local and international media were reluctant to cover their picket.

Later, the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev appealed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine complaining about the demonstration arranged by “20 aggressive young people.”

Authorities continue to pressure anarchists under vague pretexts. For example, on 21 September, anarchist Raman Halilau was accosted by police and fined for having insufficient identifying documents. Halilau said two police officers stopped him on the street and searched his pockets. They then demanded he come to the police station to verify his identity, despite the fact he had already given them his passport. During the 2017 spring protests, a court sentenced Halilau to 21 days detention for participating in demonstrations that took place in Brest city. Halilau claims police beat him while he served his detention.

So far, the reason why the raids took place on September 26 and why at the apartments of those particular activists remains unclear. Vyachaslau Kasinerau, a well known Belarusian anarchist accused of anti-regime graffiti, said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: “It (the searches in the apartments of the activists – BD) is possible if we consider recent events. Authorities set a goal to infringe upon all anarchists, because it is one of the few movements that have not submitted.”

New targets for the Belarusian authorities?

Anarchists at the march against the decree. Source-svaboda.org

The peculiarity of the anarchist movement in Belarus lies in its organised nature and high degree of secrecy. Anarchists appeared at the forefront of the 2017 spring protests.

The rise of the anarchist movement effectively caught law enforcement agencies by surprise. In response, the authorities are now trying to crush the movement with searches, detentions, and interrogations.

Football fan activists in Belarus are under the same pressure. Belarusian authorities also see football fan activists as a potential threat. After the Euro Maidan protests in Ukraine, in which football fans played a significant role, Belarusian authorities have paid close attention to the participation of football supporters in domestic social movements.

For example, Ilya Valavik received a 10-year prison term for fighting on public transport. However, his wife believes the real reason for his long sentence was his involvement in Belarusian protest movements.

Belarusian social and popular movements continue to develop and intensify despite conditions created by the regime. The authorities, for their part, are testing new methods of repression and are ready to use violence. In the past, political opposition party activists were the authorities’ main targets. However, the list of victims has grown to include more closed and organised movements, such as anarchists, environmentalists, and football fans.

Visa-free travel and registration in Belarus: not so simple

Starting 12 February, citizens of 80 states, including 39 European countries, will be able to enter Belarus visa-free through the Minsk National Airport. But unlike Kazakhstan, which allows foreigners to stay in the country for up to 30 days, Belarus introduced a much more tricky visa-free regime.

Foreign travellers should be prepared for strict penalties should they fail to understand or abide by the rules. The current practise of registering people with Belarusian visas staying for longer than five days sometimes creates an impression that Belarusian migration authorities view tourists as cash cows.

Visa-free entry

Since 2016, the Belarusian authorities have been gradually opening up the country to foreigners. On 26 October, Belarus allowed visa-free entry for up to five days (UPD: from July 2018 the tem is extended to 30 days) for tourists from most Western countries coming to Hrodna Region by bus or car. This has already brought thousands of tourists to the region.

The visa-free regime through the Minsk National Airport introduced in January has more far-reaching implications. Belarus opened to ‘favourable countries in terms of migration’ and ‘strategic partners’, including the European Union countries, United States, Canada and Japan (see the full list here).

Tourists should have a valid passport or other document permitting foreign travel, a small amount of money (minimum €25 per day), and medical insurance. For some poorer countries, visa-free entry is allowed only on the condition that they also possess an EU visa.

Unlike Kazakhstan, which expanded the list of countries allowed to travel visa-free for up to 30 days in January 2017 and whose policy is fairly straightforward, the Belarusian visa regime is more complicated in practice than at the first sight.

Visa-free tourists must both arrive and leave only through the Minsk National Airport. This is the only international airport in a country of 9.5m people. The airport is far from Minsk (40 km) and is poorly served by public transport.

Due to the scarcity of flights connecting Minsk with the rest of the world, having even a full three-day slot in Belarus could be problematic. For example, there are only three direct flights per week to London.

This short time period effectively makes travelling to other parts of Belarus, such as Hrodna or Brest, very difficult because this requires at least half a day’s travel from Minsk.

Kafkaesque migration regulations and procedures

Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is trying to create a positive image of the country to promote the visa-free regime, the Ministry of Internal Affairs seems to have a different goal.

On 10 January 2016 the Head of the Department of Citizenship and Migration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Aliaksei Biahun, explained that those who overstay their five-day visa will face a warning or a fine of up to €550 with or without deportation. We will not know until February how the new visa-free regime will work in practice, but the current procedure for registering foreigners with Belarusian visas who want to spend more than five days in Belarus is perhaps a hint.

If you are a foreigner with a Belarusian visa and want to stay for more than five days not in an officially registered hotel you need to register with the police. The point of this procedure is to ensure the authorities know where you are staying. Ironically, by this time you will have given the authorities this address twice: when applying for the visa and completing a migration card when crossing the boder.

Belarus probably has the strictest system of registration of foreigners in Europe. For example, the United Kingdom only requires police registration if you stay longer than six months. Russia permits visits without registration of seven working days, which can mean eleven if you include weekends. Belarus only allows five days, which following a strange logic includes Saturdays but not Sundays (this tiny detail is often omitted and can lead to serious problems and fines).

To make things even more complicated, on Saturdays the police registration offices are usually open for only a few hours, but the banks where you need to go to pay fees are closed. On Mondays, police departments are usually closed for registration procedures but this day still counts towards the five-day limit.

Under normal Belarusian law, counting the days starts on the day following the event (i.e. crossing the border). However, migration officials also count the day of arrival, even if you arrive at 23:59. This makes it even more difficult to figure out when exactly you need to register.

Although Belarus bills itself as a new Silicon Valley, home to successful startups such as Viber and World of Tanks, registration for foreigners cannot be done online; foreigners need to register in person in a remote office.

The registration fee is very small (around $10), but you are likely to spend at least half a day registering yourself. You will need to figure out the procedure (which is not explained when you cross the border), find and reach the registration office in a remote location and queue to get an application form. You cannot go there alone even if you speak the language, because the application form has to be signed both by you and your Belarusian host.

It is not possible to pay on the spot, so you also have to find a local bank and queue there to make the registration payment. With the confirmation of payment and a number of other documents, you will then need to return to the registration office to join yet another queue to submit it to a migration official.

The wrath of Belarusian law and the hungry Belarusian budget

If you think that failure to pay a small $10 registration fee on time is not a big deal, you don’t understand the logic of the system. The main purpose of the fine is not to compensate the damage caused by failure to submit your address for the third time. The logic is to bring in money for the budget. As Belarus is experiencing a deep recession caused by falling oil prices and lack of reform, the government has to be creative.

So, if you miss the registration even by one day, you will face a fine equivalent to hundreds of US dollars. Although the law also provides the possibility of a warning, in practice this will be of little help, even if you have a very good reason for missing the deadline.

What’s more, your Belarusian host will also have to pay a fine of a similar amount for failing to ensure that their guest is registered. According to this logic, a driver should pay a fine for violating a traffic rule as well as a passenger for failing to prevent it. This absurdness, however, helps raise money for the budget.

Is it worth all the hassle?

Belarus is an interesting country for tourists, not only because of the remnants of the Soviet past such as monuments to Lenin, but because of its rich history.

It has four UNESCO World Heritage sites and beautiful nature with plenty of forests and lakes. The prices (particularly for alcohol) are generally very low, the country is very safe and easy to reach.

The best advice for tourists would be to check and double-check all regulations and procedures in advance in order to avoid fines.

The new visa-free regime is certainly an important step which makes political and economic sense. One would hope that the Belarusian government would think more of the bigger picture and the country’s reputation. Belarus should welcome tourists so they can stay in the country longer and spend more on pleasurable activities than fines.

Police brutality in Belarus

On 26 November 2016, a 36-year old woman was killed in a car accident as she was crossing the road in the village of Darava in the Brest region.The drunk driver responsible for the accident turned out to be the head of the Baranavičy road police.

After having a conversation with the family of the victim, they mentioned that they have visited this website https://www.423HURT.com to receive legal advice in order for them to fill out a lawsuit against the drunk driver.

Alcohol is only one of many problems tarnishing the public perception of the police forces. Arbitrariness, a lack of integrity, and insufficient transparency all undermine the reputation of the police.

Police brutality still remains a serious problem in Belarus. In 2016, the number of cases involving abuse of power by the police in Belarus continued to rise.

Drunk and dangerous

Andrej Vaukavycki, the head of the Baranavičy road police who caused the accident, is currently undergoing investigation. The media have already confirmed that on the day of the accident he was driving his personal car with a blood alcohol concentration of nearly three promille.

According to eyewitness accounts, the victim, a mother of two, was killed instantaneously. Vaukavycki’s career is certainly over, and he faces up to seven years of prison time. Alcoholism is widespread among police officers, and Vaukavycki was not the first officer caught driving drunk.

On 20 February 2016, a couple from Viciebsk stopped the car of the Head of the Regional Department of Internal Affairs, Siarhej Sarokin, suspecting that the driver was intoxicated. The road police later detected two promille of alcohol in Sarokin’s blood. Eventually, he was fined approximately $1,200 and his driving licence was suspended for five years.

Is there a limit to arbitrariness?

The death of a pedestrian forced the Ministry of Internal Affairs to react with an official statement. But instead of apologising to the victim’s family, minister Ihar Šunevič condemned Vaukavycki as a ‘disgrace’ to the police forces. The minister also reassured the public that delinquent officials would lose their jobs immediately.

In addition to having alcohol problems, police officers in Belarus often act with impunity. On 4 August 2016, a group of masked police officers broke into the apartment of Dzmitry Serada, a Minsk paediatrician. Without any warning, they started to break the front doors and balcony, beating the doctor and frightening his child and pregnant wife. Later, police admitted that they made a mistake, but so far no one has been punished.

In summer 2016, a SWAT team detained two underage youths, beating them up and urinating on one of them. Threats of sexual abuse followed. However, the youths themselves were later accused of attacking the police. On 1 November 2016, one of them, the 17-year old Aliaksandr Haruta, was sentenced to two years of house arrest for allegedly beating up the SWAT officer.

Statistical data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs reports 123 criminal cases involving accusations against police officers in 2016. However, Minister Šunevič has avoided detailing any specific long-term plan to address police arbitrariness. Earlier this year, the minister categorically denied any evidence of professional ineptitude in the police force and threatened to prosecute those who criticised it.

The police vs civil society

javascript:void(0)Other issues plaguing the Belarusian police include deficient personnel recruitment policies and training and lack of public access to police force oversight. Another point of criticism is the persecution of politically active citizens.

According to human rights defender and former investigator Aleh Volčak, Belarus is in need of a ‘complete overhaul of the police force.’ In his opinion, the police’s only mission at the moment is to protect the current political regime.

Juras Hubarevič, head of the movement ‘For Freedom’, claims that political persecution now extends to ordinary citizens rather than just leading figures of the opposition. Even though the number of criminal cases has gone down, members of the opposition now commonly face administrative measures and fines, which can be a heavy burden for the population in conditions of economic crisis.

In response to such allegations, Šunevič has taken a defensive position, claiming that any attempts to criticise his ministry are evidence that certain forces intend to discredit the current political regime and destabilise the political situation in Belarus.

More skeletons in the closet

Authorities are reluctant to admit to the existence of problems. For instance, they repeatedly deny independent observers access to temporary detention facilities, infamous for their brutal conditions. Reportedly, the detained are often packed in tiny cells and do not have access to drinking water. But the real situation in these facilities remains obscure.

Officially appointed inspection commissions showcase the positive aspects of detention facilities, sometimes exaggerating them to the point of absurdity. For instance, media reports about the recent visit of Belarusian pop-singer Iryna Darafeeva to a prison in Mahiliou highlighted her amazement at the quality of prison food, which she compared to a ‘restaurant.’

Another worrying trend is that police in the provinces are less accountable than in the capital. A few weeks ago, a youth in Polack remarked that a police car was parked in a disabled parking place. Policemen forced him to come to the local police precinct in order to ‘ensure his identification.’

The numerous cases of police arbitrariness have prompted Belarusian civil society to launch an initiative against abuse of power by the police. Within two weeks in November, more than 4,000 people signed a petition demanding that Šunevič either take responsibility or resign.

Although some police officials are aware of the issues in the police force and are trying to resolve them, the majority are not yet ready to come forward and share their concerns with the public. However, in order to improve the situation and avoid further damage to the reputation of the police, a public discussion regarding the role and responsibilities of the police must take place.

Drug Dealers Move Online

The Minsk City Court is currently dealing with the high-profile case of a drug-dealing network with the help of alcohol rehab treatment, 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

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.

IMF Negotiations, Denomination, Drunk Cossacks – Belarus State Press Digest

The Belarusian leadership negotiates reform plans with the IMF mission and is ready to gradually introduce more market-oriented policies. The new denomination of the national currency will bring in new banknotes in 2016, and Belarusian coins will appear for the first time since the collapse of the USSR. Belarus needs venture funds and new legal regulation to enhance the support of startups.

The authorities plan to punish people who write too many complaints to public organisations. The police cooperate with a civil-force organisation, which was used in the Soviet period. A group of Cossacks were convicted and jailed for hooliganism.

All of this and more in this edition of the Belarus State Press Digest.

IMF reform offer is not rejected. Belarus Segodnia reported that there was a meeting between president Lukashenka and the chief of the IMF mission in Belarus, Peter Dolman which removed many misunderstandings. However before the negotiations politics often interfered into the economic and political negotiations, but now the sides have reached a mutual understanding. Minsk accepts broader introduction of market principles, which can be seen in the example of the increasing price of public utilities.

The same issues concern privatisation, as Belarus continues to look for the best owner of particular pieces of state property. However, Lukashenka emphasised that Belarus is not going to quickly destroy the existing system of the social state and so gradual economic reform is the only solution. The IMF seems to understand this principle, the newspaper says.

Coins come back to Belarus after 25 years. Narodnaja Hazieta writes about government plans to newly denominate the national currency. It is scheduled for 1 July 2016 at the rate of 10,000 to 1. The new design of the banknotes has already appeared in the media. The new banknotes resemble the euro, but have preserved the same concept of images as the earlier Belarusian Rouble. They will also have the architectural monuments on them.

The monuments on banknotes come from each of the six regions of Belarus and the capital of Minsk. Moreover, Belarus will introduce coins, rubles and kopek, for the first time since USSR's collapse. The banknotes are interesting from an identity viewpoint, since most of them display medieval monuments, respected by the nationally oriented part of society. Two new denominations have already occurred in Belarus in 1994 and 2000.

Overly active complainants will be fined. Znamia Yunosti writes about amendments to the Law on the Appeals of Citizens, which introduced punishment for people who see complaint writing to public organisations as a part of their lifestyle. The government will fine those who complain without having serious grounds. Such complaints are especially widespread in housing, public utilities and healthcare.

The director of the Minsk state dental clinic, Aliena Daškievič, shares in an interview with the newspaper that her colleagues dream of this law becoming effective. In Belarus, where public control of the state has hardly ever existed, complaints remain the only channel for citizens to reach officials with their problems. However, many dissatisfied Belarusians, particularly the elderly, continue to write letters to these organisations and therefore seriously annoy bureaucrats.

Why startups receive too little support in Belarus. Narodnaja Hazieta asks Aliaksej Šabloŭski, the director of Centre for Entrepreneurship Support ‘Startup Technologies’, why the ideas of Belarusian programmers receive high acclaim abroad but little financing at home. According to him, Belarus has certain niches for new technologies but its domestic market is too small, so programmers prefer to work abroad.

Belarus also needs to develop an effective system of entrepreneurial support: technology parks, business incubators, venture funds and private investors. The country urgently needs legislation to regulate the creation of such a system. However, the expert concludes that since startup funding remains quite new in Belarus, the country also needs time to let it grow.

Internet project Green Map will map the environmental spots of Belarus. Zviazda newspaper informs its readers that the project of the Centre of Environmental Solution, the Belarusian green NGO, seeks volunteers for their Green Map project. Earlier, the e-map included the spots which collect recycling materials, dangerous waste and second-hand material for further use. The updated e-map will create three new blocks: the addresses of organisations which provide environmental information and consultation, existing renewable energy projects, and natural zones in cities and nearby areas. Today the project unites 26 Belarusian cities and is expected to cover all cities with the help of volunteers.

Russian Cossacks sentenced to prison. Vecherniy Brest reports that three participants of the horse ride from Moscow to Berlin who crossed Belarus this summer, received prison terms after a trail lasting a few months. In a state of alcohol intoxication they beat a student of Pinsk agrarian college.

The conflict occurred after the Cossacks started to harass girls in the college dormitory where local authorities hospitably accommodated their Russian guests. The Cossacks who organised the ride say this was a big disgrace for their organisation and they will punish their colleagues after they finish serving prison terms in Belarus.

Civil support of police thrives in Mahilioŭ. Vecherniy Mogiliov reports that this year voluntary squads (družynas) took an active part in the enforcement of law together with the Mahilioŭ police. Družynas emerged in the USSR in the 1950s to assist police at the local level and still function in Belarus until today. They can be seen in the streets wearing red armbands.

This year the Mahilioŭ družynas have detected a few hundred administrative and some criminal offences. They have also conducted numerous preventive meetings with vulnerable social groups.An active member of the družyna, Valer Prudnikaŭ, who worked as a policeman in the past, looks happy when saying that he managed to attract youth to this civil activity. They enjoy learning how to behave in various situations, and moreover, they receive some payment for that, the activist said.

The first congress of Belarusians of Karelia. Around 100 delegates from 15 municipalities, representatives of the State Duma and regional authorities took part in the first congress of Karelian Belarusians, Soyuz newspaper reports. Belarusians are the third largest nationality in Karelia, the northern region of Russia on the border with Finland, with 23,000 inhabitants of Belarusian origin there. They started to migrate there in 1930s-1940s, when the Soviet government decided to populate the former Finnish territories. Along with voluntary migrants, however, the Stalin regime exiled rich peasants or 'kulaki' to these lands. Now Karelian Belarusians plan to unite into one regional association.

The State Digest Digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.

Lukashenka Hammers Drug Dealers and Users with a Tough Decree

Starting 1 January 2015, Belarusians can no longer use e-money services with operations based inside the country. A presidential decree signed on 28 December requires all domestic e-money service account holders to provide authentic identification information.

Controlling e-commerce is Minsk’s first major move in the war on drugs. Electronic accounts were popular among drug dealers who received transactions anonymously.

The presidential decree also strengthened punishment for drug trafficking, with sentences ranging of up to 25 years, and introduced measures sanctioning intoxication. The new law targets a synthetic drug called ‘spice’, which has had disastrous consequences in Belarus in recent years.

A more comprehensive approach to the problem is needed, however. Promoting youth development and education should be a part of any long-term response to drug addition. Additionally, the lack of public debate on drugs contributes to a distorted public perception of the scale of the problem. A majority of them recommend  taking treatment at Miami drug rehab, which is one of the best for drug and alcohol addicts.

A Major Step in the War on Drugs

According to the 14 January statement by the Head of the Department on Drug Trafficking, since 2014 Belarusian hospitals have accepted 1,351 people with overdoses, 32 of whom subsequently died. More than a thousand of these people consumed spice. In 2013 alone 800 such patients appeared in the hospitals, suggesting a striking increase in 2014. These statistics motivated the adoption of the anti-drug decree, said one official.

In January 2014, after a poppy seed ban came into effect, police reported a considerable reduction in the consumption of opiates. However, the problem of synthetic drugs, locally known as “spice”, remained at critically high levels. Spice has overtaken the market share of opiates, easily spreading among the youth.

The police could do little to counter the problem due to the lack of necessary laws and equipment. Some police departments had no Internet access and thus were unable to monitor online drug trade.

In December 2014 Lukashenka called a meeting on combating illicit drug trafficking. He made some far-reaching propositions, going as far as to say, “We should create unbearable conditions for [drug traffickers] in prisons. Let us create for them a regime where they would, I’ll say it plainly, beg for death”.

Lukashenka also suggested establishing LTPs (sanatorium labour centres) for drug addicts. “We should not treat in hospitals, where normal people are being treated, but in institutions where they [drug addicts] have time only to sleep and work,” he said.

The final text of the law did not contain any of Lukashenka’s proposed measures, suggesting that they were meant primarily for public ears. However, punishment for drug-related crimes have indeed become more severe. The decree also included measures to tackle the online channels of drug trafficking.

Harsh Punishments for Drug Dealers

The decree raised the maximum sentence for various kinds of drug trafficking crimes to up to 25 years. It also lowered the age of criminal liability in drug cases to 14 years.

Taking into account the scale of synthetic drug usage in Belarus, many experts approve of tougher punishments for dealers. The human rights centre “Platform” stated that “as the problem of drug use in Belarus has become so critical, our centre supports all of the initiatives for stricter punishment for dealers”.

A Minsk lawyer Hanna Dakućka said that she usually opposes tougher punishment, but since drugs are becoming a national catastrophe, she agrees with increasing prison terms for the drug trade.

So far, the government has focused on deterring trafficking, which is only one side of the problem. No preventive measures were taken. In particular, the authorities are unable to provide proper leisure infrastructure and education that could prevent youngsters from taking drugs. This problem hardly ever appears in government debates. The reason for this is that Belarus lacks youth policy.

To be sure, the possibility of spending two decades in jail may make a seasoned criminal think twice about engaging in drug trade. Young people, however, tend to realise their mistakes only after they have wound up behind bars. And it is precisely the youth who represent the majority of offenders, not the seasoned criminals.

The decree made appearing in public place in a state of intoxication a misdemeanour; a repeat offence is now considered a felony. The degree also established fines for the owners of nightclubs and casinos who turn a blind eye to drug use or trade inside their businesses.

Liudmila Truchan, a representative of the civil association Positive Movement, which helps HIV-positive people and injecting drug users, opposes this aspect of the decree. “They are people with an illness and they will not cease to be them if they receive fines for their drug use”, she said.

The head of the civil association Mothers Against Drugs Iryna Lukjanovič disagrees. In her opinion, the possibility of finding oneself in jail may push an addict towards rehabilitation, which they have so far sought to avoid.

The law also introduced a series of thorough controls on the online drug trade. Police now can shut down any web site suspected of promoting drugs. The Ministry of Internal Affairs created a cyber intelligence unit which will combat online drug crime. The law imposed additional responsibilities on the owners of the Internet resources. Now providers will have to monitor all of their content in order to prevent the spread of drug trafficking and to inform the police whenever a potential case arises.

The decree also requires obligatory identification for all e-money accounts that have payment systems and work within Belarus. This measure has already led to some results within the first days of decree’s coming into force.

Web Sites and E-money Accounts Closed

Most electronic payment systems have halted their operations because of the decree. Payment terminals have also stopped using electronic account services such as Belqi, EasyPay, and WMB. The systems are apparently undergoing restructuring, which will include the necessary identification verification procedures as required by the law.

The decree also affected gift card services previously offered by three Belarusian banks. In the past, anyone could buy a gift card with a particular sum of money and give it as a present to friends or family. This card, unlike a regular credit or debit card, did not identify its holder by name.

Now anyone who has received a gift card needs to verify their identity. The banks are complaining that under the new law gift cards are no longer profitable and the service has to be halted.

Requiring identification for every e-transaction can certainly hamper drug dealers’ business, but it will by no means stop them. People can rely on e-services based outside of Belarus, such as PayPal. What the law might do instead is increase the amount of cash used in drug business, with smaller transactions bundled into larger ones. One way or another, dealers will find ways to bypass these obstacles.

The coming months will show whether drug dealers with a good grasp of modern technology can outwit the authorities and continue on with lucrative trade. What is certain, however, is that the decree will destroy many young lives by putting the youth experimenting with drugs into prison for decades.

Hunting Tourism and Corruption in Belarus

Since the end of the 2000s, Belarus has become a destination for many hunt lovers from abroad. 40% of Belarus is covered with woods, which remain a natural habitat for many species of animals. Today, booking a hunting expedition in Belarus can be made online with a couple of clicks.

Many Belarusians still prefer poaching, unwilling to stick to strict rules of legal hunting, even despite constantly growing penalties and fines. An extraordinary case of poaching occurred this past December, when the Belarusian KGB arrested a group of ten hunters in the Chernobyl zone of the Homel region. Strikingly, the officials of wildlife protection agency and police were among them. The group illegally killed four elk.

Corruption among low-level forestry employees remains widespread, as they try to supplement their low wages with additional cash. To protect its rich wildlife heritage, Belarus needs to improve its state system of nature management.

Hunting Tourism on the Rise in Belarus

Unlike most of Europe, Belarus has retained much of its ancient forests, which occupy almost 40% of Belarus’ territory. Up to the present day they remain a natural habitat for many species of animals and birds, most of them free to hunt during specific seasons. However, in the 1990s and 2000s Belarus as a hunting destination was little known abroad.

Today, it seems, Belarus is becoming a favourite hunting spot for many individuals. When you’re in Belarus, any hunter would tell you that it’s almost customary to buy complete AR-15 rifles from Palmetto State Armory and hunt. As one online advertisement says, “the most luring feature is the complete authenticity of the wild animals, inhabiting the forests, swamps and fields of Belarus”.

One can book of a few days’ hunt in Belarus through numerous web sites. They provide information on prices, animal species and the various hunting seasons, as well as a list of necessary documents and procedures for foreigners. They also display photos of previous successful hunting trips to attract new customers.

Hunting companies typically offer 3 days of hunting for around €1,000. The price usually includes permission to bring one’s own firearm, accommodation and meals, a hunting licence and transport from the airport to the hunting spot, an interpreter and accompanying hunters. Some firms include additional services like alcohol, sauna and trophy preparation.

As for animals, visiting hunters can choose between big game like European bison (prices starting from €10,000), wild boar (€100-600), elk (€700-4,500) or red deer (€700-3,500). The prices depend on the animal’s size, horns and other specific factors. Alternatively, one can go for small game ranging from €10 for partridge, waterfowl or woodcock, to capercaillie for €500.

But not all citizens are ready to pay these kinds of prices for a traditional male occupation. Poaching remains a widespread activity for many Belarusians, especially in rural areas. Corruption thrives, as both local people and local power holders often make deals with forestry workers.

Poaching Bisons in Belarus

In 2013 Lukashenka said he was surprised with the amount of hunting tackle seized from poachers – one thousand rifles, 300 kilometres of fishing net, dozens of tonnes of meat and fish. In 2014 the authorities raised fines for poaching, but so far it is unclear whether this move will lead to a decline in illegal hunting.

Hunting bison, one of the symbols of Belarus, usually receives the most attention in the media. According to Belarusian legislation, bison are divided into two categories – the main gene pool and the reserve gene pool. The animals from the latter pool – usually old or ill – are not considered as listed in the Red Book (list of endangered species), and can be hunted according to a certain procedure.

Environmentalists oppose such norms, saying rare species should be protected regardless of their health or age. But Belarus officials have another rationale – the population of bison is growing and it needs to be regulated.

Belarusians cannot afford bison hunting, as it costs several thousand euro, so the main clients usually come from abroad.

In recent years bison hunting involved many illegal cases. Usually, illegal schemes come from forestry officials, who make money by providing their hunting services for foreign tourists. In winter 2012, a Russian citizen killed a bison and wounded another one in the Valožyn district, while citizens of Lithuania killed three in the Chojniki district.

The guilty forester received only minor punishment for their transgressions. Earlier in 2009 an Italian killed a female bison at the Belaviežskaja Pušča national reserve, where hunting is forbidden. As it turned out, a local forester assisted him in getting to the protected area.

In 2011, the Presidential Property Management Department put a bison’s life up for an Internet auction, which caused a public uproar and an online campaign to save his life and forbid this practise from continuining. Plenty of people made fake bids in an attempt to prolong the life of the animal while the owners of the lot checked the identity of the bidder. In the end ,the campaign wrecked the lot and these kinds of bids have not again appeared in public.

While poaching on the side of citizens is still widespread, some cases of government officials involved in this illegal activity have also become public. One of the most striking instances occurred recently, when a nature protection servicemen worked in contradiction of their official duties.

Wildlife Protectors Killing Wildlife

At the beginning of December the Belarusian authorities informed the public of a quite a paradoxical corruption case. Officials from the nation’s wildlife protection agency were engaged in illegal hunting together with several police companions as additional cover. The group was poaching in the Vetka district of the Chernobyl area. Two of them were officials from the Homiel Regional Inspection for the Protection of Wildlife and the other five were officers from the Homiel Regional Police Department.

The group was supposed to eliminate wild boars as a part of programme to combat African swine flue. Instead, the group killed four elk. The poachers moved in a car with gangster-style registration plate with the word “Serega”, the name of the owner, instead of the officially required numbers.

The car owner’s son turned out to be the deputy head of Homel Regional Inspection for the Protection of Wildlife. During their detention of the poachers, KGB officers even had to resort to pulling out weapons to stop the car.

The locals say that the poachers organised a hunting business in the area together with a Russia citizen who lives in a bordering town. The men hunted animals illegally and then sold the meat to local people. Now they have been fired from service and face up to four years in prison.

By strange coincidence, the same month on 29 December a senor Belarusian official himself became a victim of hunting. The judge of the Supreme Court of Belarus Victar Rakicki received fatal wounds from some of his hunting colleagues, “residents of the Minsk region”, as the Investigatory Committee reports.

Belarus retains its rich flora and fauna, and preserving it should be one of the government’s strategic goals. The authorities should control the local level of wildlife management more thoroughly, as most corruption cases occur there. Besides this, environmental groups from civil society should gain access to policymaking and oversight to help strengthen the public’s engagement with this important issue.

New Weapons from China, Taking Offence at NATO, Afghanistan Border – Belarus Security Digest

China regards Belarus as a promising market for its armaments. Attempts to establish cooperation between NATO and CSTO have failed.

The situation in Afghanistan keeps special services and border guards from CIS countries on their toes: an escalation of the conflict is expected in the spring. Several ex-Soviet countries are getting ready to repel attacks from the Taliban.

Belarus plans to start manufacturing engines for cruise missiles with the support of Ukrainian experts in 2016. Belarus' Ministry of Interior has a hard time recruiting new staff. All of this and more in this edition of the Belarus Security Digest.

China will assist the Belarusian army

On 8 November, the defence ministries of Belarus and China signed a protocol for a bilateral agreement on non-repayable military assistance provided by China to Belarus. It is highly likely that it will be another batch of armoured vehicles. Conversely, it is unlikely that the amount of aid will exceed $7m as Beijing pushes its military wares on international markets.

The gifting of these goods is really a sales promotion, which allows potential buyers to familiarise themselves with the quality and technical features of the Chinese products. Belarusian soldiers are already became familiar with Chinese small arms back after a November 2012 a joint anti-terrorist training session known as "Swift Eagle – 2012" took place in China.

CSTO took offence at NATO

The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) decided to suspend efforts directed at establishing relations with NATO. They have motivated this decision by their non-constructive, and often openly hostile, position held by the EU and the Alliance.

The CSTO regularly accuses NATO of attempts to destabilise the situation in CSTO countries. They cite the alleged "disproportionate increase in the number of employees of Western embassies and, first of all, the United States" as well as "revitalisation of numerous NGOs funded through Western grants" as being reasons for concern.

The CSTO's renunciation of contacts with NATO was expected: CSTO has attempted to establish dialogue with their western colleagues since 2004. The West ignored them and favoured the development of bilateral relations with CSTO's member states.

In fact, this decision, even if it does not affect anything directly, is one of the hallmarks of the "Cold War 2.0" between Russia and the West. The lack of recognition by the West signals the limited international importance of CSTO.

The Situation in Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan has been at the centre of attention of the CIS' special security services and border guards. On 5 November, a meeting of the Council of Heads of Security and Special Services of the CIS member states took place in Minsk.

The agenda included the issues of combating international terrorist organisations operating in Afghanistan because of the threat of an expansion of their activities into the territory of the CIS after the withdrawal of most the ISAF's troops in 2014. Separately, they have discussed measures to protect their transportation infrastructure from terrorist attacks.

On 20 November, in Brest, a meeting of the Council of Commanders of Border Troops of the CIS took place. According to experts, the situation on the ground is showing signs of deterioration. In spring 2015, the situation on the border with Afghanistan will become even more difficult.

Belarus Hopes to Join the League of Missile Wielding Nations

In November, a meeting of representatives of the Ukrainian corporation Motor Sich and the State Military and Industrial Committee of Belarus took place in Zaporizhzha, Ukraine. Both the Ukrainian and Belarusian parties avoided advertising this event officially and have refrained from making any comments on it as well. Meanwhile, information is circulating about some preliminary agreements on expanding cooperation between the two parties.

In particular, the manufacturing line for small gas turbine engines for cruise missile may be moved to the JSC Orsha Aircraft Repair Plant. Belarus has never manufactured anything similar; it lacks the expertise, an engineering school and even the manufacturing equipment. If the agreement were implemented, it would become a serious technological breakthrough for Belarus. Even despite the fact that the Ukrainian experts be the ones to make it happen. Manufacturing is preliminarily scheduled to begin in 2016.

Belarus' New Defence Minister

On 25 November, Minister of Defence Jury Zhadobin was discharged from his post as a result of aging out. The forty-seven-year-old Andrej Raukou was appointed to take over his post. This move can be viewed as one technical manager of the military agency being replaced by another. This staffing decision was taken in the framework of Lukashenka's recent policy to bring in younger senior managers to important posts in the government.

The new minister has already made it clear that no major changes should be expected in the defence field as Alexander Lukashenka has defined the strategy. He will simply have to implement it. Traditionally, the details of this strategy are not disclosed. The indicator of the defence budget for 2015 will be of critical importance. It will be a sign of a possible shift in government priorities in connection with the ongoing regional security crisis.

Problems with Police Staffing

The Ministry of Interior is undertaking efforts to improve the situation with the nation's police force staffing. They view the professional orientation of youth as one of the potential tools to rectify the situation. In November, the Academy of the Ministry of Interior held a seminar with managers of the nation's school system, which has introduced legal education classes as well as the cadet schools with the participation of Major General Ihar Shunievich, the Interior Minister. This confirms the importance of this policy shift in the activities of the ministry.

The lack of budgetary funds limits the ministry's ability to overcome the more negative trends associated with new personnel recruitment. Discussions about the bloated budgets of security agencies in Belarus is nothing but speculation. A year ago, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Belarus demanded that the Department of Internal Affairs of the Minsk region to fully staff the economic crime units with qualified experts.

Police Colonel Siarhiej Bandaryk, head of the Main Department of Ideological Work of the Ministry of Interior recognised then the existence of serious problems with the recruitment of high quality personnel. Three main reasons explain it: recruits poor health; tough competition on the labour market; and new recruits' mind-set that views financial well-being "here and now" and an issue associated with their prospective careers' progression.

Andrei Parotnikau

Andrei is the head of “Belarus Security Blog” analytical project.

The Ukrainian Flag Banned in Belarus?

On 21 November the Minsk Arena hosted the famous Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy, who are known for their support of Euromaidan and its pro-European orientation. The musicians did not raise any political issues during the gig according to agreement with the administration, but their concert became politicised nonetheless.

The next day videos appeared online in which policemen refused to allow people sporting the colours of the Ukrainian flag into the concert and even went so far as to pull a flag out of a fan’s hands inside the venue.

Belarus has so far only placed a ban on the Belarusian national white-red-white flag which is considered by the authorities to be an anti-government and anti-Lukashenka symbol that is unauthorised at public gatherings.

With the start of Euromaidan and the Ukraine Crisis the symbols of these conflicting sides have also become a target of political persecution.

Music and Politics

The Russian government banned Okean Elzy from holding concerts back in the spring while the Euromaidan revolution was unfolding in Ukraine. St Petersburg city government representative Vladimir Milonov accused them of radicalism and holding anti-Russian views and went on to urge the Minister of Culture to restrict their activity in Russia. Shortly afterwards several entertainment agencies informed the band that they were not going to be able to have any concerts in Russia.

However, in Belarus Okean Elzy does not face any restrictions so far. On 21 November they played a gig at the largest concert hall in Minsk — the Minsk-Arena, which holds a total of 15,000 people.

The band was truly triumphant in their return to Belarus with a hall full of fans – a rare situation for Belarus. This itself did not come as much of a surprise as the previous Okean Elzy concert in Minsk, back in December 2013, had a similar turnout.

Deputy Director of the Minsk-Arena Mikalaj Serhiejenka commented after the concert that the administration had discussed the set list with the band in advance and asked them not to sing certain songs that might be viewed as having political undertones. “We do not want to escalate the atmosphere during the concert as it can lead to some kind of abnormal action”, he said. In compliance with this agreement, Okean Elzy did not raise any political issues during the concert.

The Ukrainian Flag Banned?

The next day, however, a video appeared on the Internet in which plain-clothed policemen, who were searching audience members, refused a group of girls enter the concert with a Ukrainian flag. They forced visitors to leave all symbols containing yellow-blue Ukrainian colours in a cloakroom outside the hall.

The girls demanded to see some kind of documentation that forbade Ukrainians symbols being displayed at concerts, but instead they received only a vague response that “this is not a political event”. After some resistance and the police's own persistent demands, they gave in after being threatened with arrest.

Another video from the concert showed a policeman pulling a Ukrainian flag out of a fan’s hands after failing to persuade her to give it up voluntarily.

In an interview with TUT.by after the concert, Volha Kavaĺkova and Maryna Chomič, the girls from the same video, said that “the police did not even let people in with small Ukrainian flag ribbons on their bags. They even insisted that we remove a ribbon from my friend’s hair”.

The Minsk-Arena web site only says that visitors cannot display symbols of fascist or racist content at concerts.

The Authorities Deny Political Background

The concert organisers acknowledged that the decision to ban Ukrainian flag came from the Minsk police. Regarding the inquiries made by TUT.by journalists, the Press Secretary of the Minsk Internal Affairs Department explained that flags and other things might disturb other visitors, and their use was restricted strictly in the name of security.

After a few taped incidents appeared online, the Press Secretary of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote on his twitter in Belarusian: “Colleagues, is this sane? Is the Ukrainian flag banned in Belarus?”

On 24 November the Belarusian MFA replied to the tweet “According to the Ministry of Interior, when the house is full, the same thing would be seen with the Belarusian flag because it should not disturb the spectators. Our people love Okean Elzy!” The Ukrainian reply was “Thanks for the reply, but I cannot imagine [a scenario where] the police handled the Belarusian flag with equal disrespect and brutality”.

On 25 November the Belarusian Ambassador to Ukraine was summoned to the Ukrainian MFA. The Ukrainians asked him to explain the incident with the flag and he replied that concert regulations do not allow for it to be displayed. However, he failed to explain why the police handled the flags with disrespect.

Politicised Symbols in Belarus

In Belarus, the white-red-white flag that was abolished by the Lukashenka-initiated referendum in 1995 remains one of the most contentious of outlawed symbols in the country. The flag can only be used as a BNF political party symbol at officially sanctioned meetings and pickets. Otherwise its appearance in public is regarded as a kind of anti-government protest and is a regular target for the police.

Merely displaying it in a public place is qualified as an "unauthorised action" that can lead to fines being levied or even a few days in jail. Even hanging the flag out of the window of your own apartment is illegal.

The most famous case of a demonstration held under the white-red-white banner occurred in 2010 in Viciebsk when the activist Siarhei Kavalienka placed a flag on the top of the city's downtown Christmas tree. Thus far this has also been the only strictly flag-related criminal case, though Kavalienka was accused of disturbing public order.

Despite the authorities’ claims that during a concert flags cannot be displayed on security reasons, the official Belarusian flag can regularly be seen at concerts. In fact, before the Euromaidan revolution, the Ukrainian flag also was not considered a “political symbol”. Afterwards, however, it has become highly politicised and a source of potential problems with the police.

It now appears that besides the white-red-white flag, symbols employed during the Ukraine crisis have also received official censure. The flags of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics have yet to show up at large public events, but during Victory Day this past May, Belarus banned the use of St. Georges ribbons – a World War II symbol that has also become a symbol of the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

Another remarkable case of pro-Russian symbol restriction occurred back in November 2012, when the Mahilioŭ local authorities forbade the organisers of “Slavic March” to use a black-yellow-white flag – the traditional symbols of Russian monarchists and nationalists. In effect, this means that the authorities are restricting not only the symbols of the democratic opposition but every other dubious political symbol that they cross.

Belarus continues to maintain its balancing act between Russia and the West on the Ukraine issue, all while trying to be a reconciling partner for the conflict. Clearly, non-alignment will remain an important element of Belarus's foreign policy, including the symbolic dimension that this entails. The Belarusian police, as usual, will continue to try to serve Lukashenka to the best of their ability, even if that means ensuring that the smallest disagreeable symbol does not rear its head in public.

Belarus May Introduce Forced Labour to Fight Sponging

On 20 October the government announced a plan to introduce punishment for sponging ('tuneyadstvo’). It was practiced in Soviet times and it may return to Belarus again. About 10% of population able to work do not pay taxes although the official unemployment rate is only 0,5%.

Belarus has one of the largest shadow economies in the region. Over the last years the Belarusian authorities often tolerated illegal economic activity in return for political loyalty. But as the state finances become thin and political situation seems under control, the authorities seek to exploit the huge shadow sector.

The government suggests various options to resolve the problem, from a fixed fee on spongers to forced employment, but decision is yet to be taken. Such measures may create a legalised violation of human rights, but the regime looks very determined to extract new funds at high political price.

The War on Spongers Is Coming

On 20 October Aliaksandr Lukashenka held a meeting with the government to discuss current problems of the labour market in Belarus. The country is facing the same demographic problems as practically all European countries: the number of able-bodied population decreases, which results in the lack of labour force and pressure on social system, especially pensions and healthcare.

Moreover, about 500 000 Belarusians either do not work at all, or do not work officially according to the governmental data. This equals to more than 10% of the population able to work. They use free education, healthcare and pay reduced price for public services, but do not contribute to the state budget.

Lukashenka looked unusually emotional and determined during the sponging discussion: “It is high time to stop the sponging! In the name of revolution 400,000 of Belarusians must be involved in work!”

Finally, Lukashenka appointed the head of Presidential Administration Andrej Kabiakoŭ and State Secretary of Security Council Aliaksandr Miažujeŭ responsible for developing measures against spongers. As both of them occupy highest positions in the regime's hierarchy, it looks like they regard the problem as very serious. And the solution must be found fast – Lukashenka ordered to start the implementation of new policies from the new year.

What Belarusian leader did not mention is that Belarus has one of the largest shadow economies among the post-socialist countries. According to World Bank estimates, in 2010 Belarus had a shadow economy amounting to 46% of GDP.

During the years of stability in 2000s, when economy boosted due to high Russian subsidies, the regime tolerated the shadow activity of the citizens in exchange for political loyalty. But as economic situation worsened in recent years, the government seeks new sources of filling the budget.

Who are Belarusians Spongers

Several groups of citizens are most likely to be targeted under the new law. The government officials usually talk about alcoholics who do not work because of addiction. In this case, however, administrative measures will hardly work, as they do not work currently. For instance, local authorities force state enterprises to employ parents, who were deprived of parental rights, and have to pay for their children's care in orphanage.

Usually being alcoholics, they barely show up at work. Even forced delivery of such citizens to their workplaces by the policemen does not help. Needless to say, the employers, who have to employ them, strongly oppose such measures.

More sober citizens, who consciously evade taxes, work either abroad or in the shadow economy. A considerable number of people work in Russia, visiting their families in Belarus from time to time. Most of them descend from eastern Belarus and work in construction.

Another group comes from the EU borderland. They smuggle cigarettes, alcohol and fuel to the EU and all kinds of goods from there. Online earners, like freelancers and Internet-gamblers, will also suffer from the new law, as will do many small businesses that operate illegally.

However, some social groups indeed face unemployment and it is unclear how the problem can be solved in their case. In many villages and small towns few jobs usually exist and they are badly paid, while being officially unemployed looks rather a burden in Belarus. With a monthly benefit of only $12, people have to do dirty jobs and later they receive job offers with minimal wages. No wonder the majority of the unemployed seek other ways of earning for their living.

First Initiatives of the Government

The police is particularly interested in sponger issue, because 60% of criminals in 2014 neither worked nor studied anywhere. Thus, forced labour could become a measure to reduce crime. At a meeting with Lukashenka, the Ministry of Internal Affairs suggested to establish an administrative liability for spongers, including forced employment. The citizens who do not pay taxes for over 6 month in a year will be charged a fine. Repeat offenders can be arrested and forced to work.

Another governmental initiative, announced by Deputy Prime-Minister Anatol Tozik, suggested to raise minimal work experience for getting a pension from 10 to 15 years. The pension age for tax evaders will rise by 5 years. And they will only receive basic free services from the state, and will have to pay for a complete package, available for free to other citizens. However, Anatol Tozik says that so far it is not clear who will be regarded as spongers, and how the whole system will work.

Will the USSR Practice Return?

In the USSR, sponging was a crime and people unwilling to work could get up to one year in jail. According to socialist ideology, work was considered a duty, not a right of a citizen. The 1936 Constitution of the USSR even contained the famous Lenin's phrase "Those who do not work, should not eat". As it often happened during Lukashenka's rule, the government suggested to revive administrative Soviet methods to solve current economic problems.

The International Labour Organisation defines forced labour as all involuntary work or service exacted under the menace of a penalty. This does not include any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country. According to the Constitution of Belarus, a citizen has to participate in financing of state expenditures, and Belarusian authorities refer to that point when discussing the sponger issue.

Earlier, Belarusian authorities already used the forced labour methods to help to implement the modernisation of wood industry. However, the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs in an interview to TUT.by assured that Belarus will not return to the Soviet practice of criminalising the sponging. The coming months will show how the authorities see the balance of human rights and state economic interests.

Belarus and Ukraine Football Fans Unite against Putin

On 9 October, during a Belarus-Ukraine qualifying match to Euro 2016, Ukrainian and Belarusian fans demonstrated an unprecedented level of solidarity. They shouted the national slogans of both countries and chanted an infamous anti-Putin song.

Although the police detained around two dozen fans before and after the game, their response was rather restrained. This light punishment" could be a signal to the Kremlin that Belarus does not support its imperialist politics in the post-Soviet space.

Belarus' security services see the hardcore fans, known as ultras, as a threat to society, as during the Ukraine crisis they proved to be a formidable protest force. But because of the decentralised nature of their activity, which is mostly non-political and popular among a younger crowd, the ultras are hard to control. This may play into Lukashenka's hands, as they may be used by the regime in its games with Russia.

Preemptive Measures of Police

A week before the match Belarusian fans announced that they would be making a show of solidarity with Ukrainians. They made stickers and banners with national Belarusian and Ukrainian symbols, saying “Brothers Forever” and “Together Forever”.

The Belarusian security services, of course, were preparing for the possible political implications that the game could carry. On match day, Ukrainian sport and fan web sites reported that Belarusian border guards denied several dozen Ukrainian fans entrance into the country because they cited the football match as the aim of their visit.

Belarusian ultras also reported the police detaining known fans at home and at work. Police told them that they had to sign some papers at the police station, and upon their arrival, they were sentenced up to 10 days in custody. Many were arrested on their way from Minsk to the match, which took place in Barysaŭ, a town not far from Minsk.

Belarus and Ukraine – Together Forever

This game, as many commentators noted afterwards, was made by the fans, not by the football teams. Ukrainians brought an atmosphere of freedom to Belarus, where security services restrict any unauthorised activity and carefully control the ultras. This seems to be the first time that the fans of any two countries displayed such a high degree of solidarity over the whole course of history of football in Belarus.

Taking turns, the Belarus and Ukraine fan sectors shouted famous national slogans from both countries: “Slava Ukraini-Heroyam Slava!” (Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes!) and “Žyvie Belaruś!” (Long Live Belarus!).

The fans also jointly sang the famous obscene chant about Putin. Belarusian fans sang patriotic songs in the Belarusian language. The stadium was indeed filled with an unbridled spirit of enthusiasm as many visitors would go on to state later.

Interestingly, the match became widely popular in Ukraine thanks to the massive support for Ukraine displayed by the Belarusian fans. For instance, the web site censor.net had 130,000 views for its piece on the phenomenon just in the first night following the game.

However, the captain of Belarusian team Cimafiej Kalačoŭ in an interview with Euroradio said that he regards the behaviour of fans improper. “Shouting political slogans was wrong. And anti-Russian songs were really stupid”, Kalačoŭ said.

He also accused the Belarusian fans of being somewhat uncultured because, in his opinion, they provided their home team with weak support. His claims stirred up a wave of anger among fans on the Internet, as most of them were enthralled with the actions of the fans – and disappointed with the team.

Regarding the game itself, Belarus lost 2:0, but neither Ukrainian nor Belarusian fans were satisfied with their teams and wrote the game off.

Authorities Dole Out Light Punishment

Such unprecedented action from the fans could not, of course, go unpunished. The Minsk regional police office reported detaining 41 fans, 14 of them being Ukrainian citizens, accusing them of 'hooliganism' and being drunk in public.

In reality, some of them simply had national symbols on clothes or banners, which is more than enough reason for the Belarusian police to detain them. Fans themselves claimed that around 130 people had been detained. A majority of those who were detained were then quickly released.

One Ukrainian was accused of possessing a swastika and received 10 days in prison, while a few others received 5 days for using foul language. For their troubles, the Belarusians got US$60 fines.

However, a Dynamo Kyiv Ultras representative going by the name of Vitali claimed in an interview to Football.ua that the Minsk police transferred six Ukrainians to Homiel, a city near the Ukrainian border, where local police took them outside of the city limits and beat them.

On 11 October, a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman reported that all of the detained Ukrainians had been released and were already home. He said president Poroshenko personally dealt with securing their release.

The authorities, it would appear, gave out the most minimal punishment possible for such a massive anti-Putin action. Although the police anticipated it and took measures in advance, in the end, they largely acted with restraint. The punishment served out was more of a formality, a reminder that the authorities are in control. Many senior officials in Belarus, including the president, may have rather enjoyed the anti-Putin chants.

Solidarity of Ultras

The Belarusian police view the ultras as potentially dangerous groups and try their best to control them. They are known to apply overly restrictive regulations on their activities, and detentions are a widespread practise during sporting events. One should hardly be surprised to find out that Belarusian ultras are not the biggest fans of Aliaksandr Lukashenka's repressive regime.

Many Belarusian ultras, much like other ultras, hold right-wing views and do not shy away from promoting blatantly racist views. At the same time, they are one of very few groups engaged in reviving national identity and employing the Belarusian language, national symbols and historical episodes that have been rejected by the state's official ideology.

Being nationalists, and therefore rejecting the imperialist ideas of Russia, Belarusian ultras were themselves on the side of Ukraine when the whole crisis erupted. Currently, they present perhaps the only social group that regularly tries to express its position on the Ukrainian conflict publicly.

On the one hand, this is inconvenient for Lukashenka, as he tries to extract money from the Russian budget, all while maintaining his official disagreement with Russian policy towards Ukraine.

On the other, this kind of behaviour by fans may actually be quite useful for him, as it demonstrates to Putin that Belarusian society does not support his imperialist behaviour — a society that democratically elected Lukashenka enjoys the support of.

Empowering Belarusian Women to Combat Domestic Violence

Every fourth woman in Belarus has been physically abused by her partner. Just in the last three months, 24 Belarusians have died as a result of domestic violence, a 41% increase from last year.

For decades, impunity for such abuse has persisted in Belarus, a country with a traditional view on a women’s place in society and a troublesome human rights record for both men and women. Domestic violence is finally becoming a public issue and preventative and punitive measures are being taken. 

On 16 April, changes to the Law on the Prevention of Offences entered into force. The law now stipulates that first-time domestic offenders shall receive a warning, while second-time offenders may have to leave the premises for up to thirty days.

The campaign “Homes Without Violence” will run from the 15th to 30th of April to convey that domestic abuse is a serious crime. Earlier this year, an international seminar on combating violence against women introduced the Belarusian police to foreign expertise. 

In the long term, however, punitive measures have limits. Only empowering women and changing the cultural norms regarding gender roles can fully eradicate domestic abuse. Given the prevalence of gender stereotypes among the rank and file, as well as political elite, this could take a long time. 

The Extent of the Problem

Belarus does not collect statistics on domestic violence or its impact on the lives of women and their families. The most recent survey on the prevalence of domestic violence, carried out in 2008, focused on women considered to have had some “family life experience” and living in the urban areas of the country.

The survey uncovered that every fourth woman has experienced physical violence, every fifth – economic violence, and every seventh – sexual violence from their male partners. The table below shows the prevalence of domestic abuse in other countries, using the estimates by Astra Women's Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health. 

The 2012 survey on the situation of children and women in Belarus carried out by the National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) provides more recent information about the scale of the problem. Over 8,000 men and women participated.

According to the survey, 11.8% of women aged 15-49 said they had been abused – physically, psychologically, economically or sexually – by their husband or intimate partner. Women living in rural areas are 6% more likely to experience violence than women who live in cities. Despite this high rate, only 4% of women and men said that domestic violence was acceptable. 

Factors Correlated with Domestic Violence

A typical Belarusian domestic bully is a man in his thirties or forties, intoxicated and unemployed, according to Oleg Karazei, Head of the Prevention Office of the Central Department for Law Enforcement and Prevention of the Belarusian Interior Ministry. Thus, a high level of alcohol consumption, economic problems, and the lower status of women may contribute to the high prevalence of domestic violence in Belarus. 

While alcohol usage itself does not cause domestic violence, many studies have pointed to a strong association between alcohol abuse and violence toward an intimate partner. Alcoholism is a serious problem in Belarus. In 2011, Belarus ranked 10th among 188 countries in alcohol consumption, according to the World Health Organisation. 

Second, studies show that abuse often occurs when couples are experiencing financial strain. Economic problems also significantly reduce a victim’s ability to leave and seek help. Belarus has one of the lowest poverty rates of any post-Soviet state.

At the same time, the country experienced a severe economic crisis in 2011, and the economy has not fully recovered since. According to a survey by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political studies (IISEPS), nearly half of respondents "could hardly make both ends meet; there was not enough money even for food" or "had enough money for food, however purchasing clothes caused serious difficulties".

The Role of Culture and Gender Roles

Most important, the prevalence of domestic violence correlates with the status of women and cultural norms regarding gender roles. On the one hand, the law treats women and men in Belarus equally. The country has acceded to all major relevant international conventions related to the rights of women, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Women’s Convention) and 
its Optional Protocol.

On the other hand, discrimination against women on the job market and the so-called “glass ceiling” remain prevalent. Patriarchal notions of a woman's role in the family pervade the social and political sphere. Belarusian women are largely responsible for child upbringing, and President Lukashenka himself views women primarily as “keepers of hearth and home". For example, in 2010 he said, "It is undeniable that the Lord has ordained a woman to be a mother. Regardless of a woman's career, she has to care for her children. I want our women to give birth to at least three children." 

Gender stereotypes make violence easier to justify and can prevent women from reporting abuse. Cultural norms play a large role in the way women choose to respond to violence. Women in Belarus, as well as in other post-Soviet states, are expected "not to wash their dirty laundry in public".

This is why the 2012 study found that only 39.7% of women who were abused sought help from others, such as law enforcement officials, medical professionals, or even friends and relatives. Police officers, who are  predominantly male, are also not immune to cultural norms and may see domestic violence as a private issue, which lowers their interest in investigating it.

Serious Consequences of Domestic Abuse 

The effects of domestic violence go beyond the adverse health consequences experienced by the immediate victims of abuse. Domestic violence destroys families. Belarus already has one of the highest divorce rates in the world; in 2013 there were 414 divorces for every 1000 marriages in the country. The high prevalence of domestic violence may be partially responsible for contributing to this problem.

Domestic violence may also exacerbate the problem of the trafficking of women. According to research by The Advocates for Human Rights in Moldova and Ukraine, women abused at home may seek work abroad and agree to uncertain and risky job conditions. Women’s NGOs in Belarus also view domestic violence as a push factor for human trafficking. Belarus remains a source and transit country for the trafficking of women.

The US State Department has placed Belarus on a tier 2 watch list, alongside other post-Communist states. Tier 2 includes around 90 countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards for combating trafficking, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards. 

Long-term Solutions to Domestic Violence

Belarus has made substantial progress in addressing the problem. In addition to the preventative and punitive legal measures discussed above, both governmental and non-governmental organisations have taken practical steps to help victims of violence.

The first Belarusian rehabilitation centre for women and children affected by violence appeared in 1998. Today, 149 such centres exist, in addition to smaller shelters managed by non-governmental organisations and religious institutions.

The rehabilitation centres provide psychological and legal assistance, as well as social support for the victims of domestic violence. Public awareness campaigns can also help address the problem by slowly changing the public's attitude toward domestic abuse. 

To eliminate domestic violence in the long term, however, the root causes of the phenomenon need to be tackled. Economic and social empowerment of women can contribute to changing the cultural norms that are permissive of domestic violence. 

Volha Charnysh

A New Drug is Killing Belarusian Youth

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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. This inpatinet addiction treatment can help you recovering from your addiction.

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. There are many rehabs like substance abuse fort lauderdale which are trying to aid to this process but it has not been that easy.

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. If you happen to suffer from substance abuse and want to save yourself from an ill-fated experience, sites like oakvinerecoverycenter.com can be of great assistance to you.

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 drug addiction in recent years. Many find themselves returning to Abbeycare Scotland again and again. Abbeycare’s rehab Scotland clinic helps those suffering from drug or alcohol addiction to complete a full rehab programme, in a safe, supervised environment. And while a good portion of addicts are forced into a rehabilitation programme by their parents, usually law enforcement initiates drug users into a programme of treatment. In 2010 ten patients with what was diagnosed as “acute psychosis” underwent drug rehab in Beverly Hills for using the synthetic drug, while in 2013 some 380 people underwent treatment.

School Epidemic

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. If you know someone who is suffering from opioid use disorder, you can help them get treated at Klinic.care in Bellevue, WA.

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.

Police Crack Down on Pro-Euromaidan Ultras in Belarus

A photo of 20 well-known Belarusians holding a banner in support of FC BATE Barysau ultras stirred up the Belarusian internet at the end of January. The photo also featured rock star Liavon Volski, writer and journalist Natalka Babina, screenwriter and film director Andrei Kureichyk.

Not far back, it was hard to imagine intellectuals expressing support for groups of football fans well-known for violence, hateful chants and slogans. But the latest confrontation in Ukraine has brought together completely different groups of people from Belarusian society.

Police initiated their stifling of the football fan sub-culture members after they declared their support for Ukrainian protesters on Maidan. In anticipation of the World Ice Hockey Championship Minsk will be hosting in May, the authorities seek to prevent protests that can spoil the event. Security agencies regard ultras as a group that can provoke unpredictable street protests during the tournament. 

A Photograph – Reason Enough to Imprison Activists

At the beginning of February, the court of Barysau called for the detention of the group of football fans known as the 23 FC BATE Ultras. The reason for punishing the youngsters was an picture published online. It featured 23 young men with retouched faces were holding the Belarusian national white-red-white flag and banners with the slogans “Stick it out Ukraine! We are with you” and “Glory to the heroes!” – a Ukrainian nationalist slogan often used during the protests in Kiev.

The arrest created a precedent in which police can punish and detain activists for posting a photo on the Internet. The court regarded the photo as an incidence holding an unsanctioned mass gathering, something which is forbidden in Belarus.

As a result, two members of the FC BATE Ultras group were arrested and put in jail for five days. Many other ultras from different cities in Belarus were summoned in for questioning.

Independent media provided wide coverage of the incident. It lead to a decidedly negative reaction from human rights activists and intellectuals. According to Valiantin Stefanovich – vice chairman of the the human rights organisation “Viasna”, the photo cannot be qualified as a public event, as technically it is unknown where the photo was taken and for that reason the arrest of football fans is clearly illegal.  

To show support for the young football fans, writers, musicians and artists took a photo with the same banners that the football fans held. Writer Natalka Babina stated: "This is a gesture of human solidarity. I support the slogans of the young men from Barysau wrote on the banners. I admire and sympathise with these them.”

The screenwriter Andrei Kureichyk said, “First of all, I’m a BATE fan. Second, I’m a lawyer by education and I would say that it’s a shame how the courts operate in our country. To adjudicate people because of an event from just one picture – it should not be like that. Third, people have a right to support whatever they wish.”

The International Solidarity of Ultras

This was not the first time when individuals from the ultras subculture in Belarus openly declared their political views. In addition to the BATE fans, the Dnepr Mahileu, Dynamo Minsk and Tarpeda Minsk Ultras have vocalised their support for Euromaidan.

In Ukraine, ultras and similar groups from a majority of the nation's football clubs have declared their support for Euromaidan. Normally these groups are at war with each other, but football fans have united to defend the protest participants from “titushky” – roaming mercenary groups of young men, dressed as civilians, whose goal is to assault and disperse peaceful demonstrations. There is ample evidence that suggests that these "titushky" are paid by pro-government forces and perhaps the government itself

Many members of the Ultras have taken part in the street clashes in Kiev. In Dnepropetrovsk, several ultras were injured during the clashes with the riot police and “titushky”. Even in Donetsk – the traditional power base and home of Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, the Ultras from the local football club Shakhter protected the city's own, much smaller, Euromaidan protest.  

Moreover, Ukrainian football fans invited ultras from all over Europe, including those who from Polish and English clubs, to Kiev to take part in their revolution. Most likely, some Belarusian football fans took advantage of this open invitation as well. The stickers of Belarusian football clubs were posted on street lights near Euromaidan can be easily found on the Internet.  

Fear of street protests

If similar street protests were to happen in Belarus, the ultras could become one of the most organised and radical group of protesters in the country, and events could perhaps begin to mirror those unfolding in Ukraine. The reaction from the police towards the ultras photo on the Internet seems to be an attempt to intimidate other ultras groups in Belarus.

Ultras could become one of the most organised and radical group of protesters in the country, and events could potentially begin to mirror those unfolding in Ukraine

According to political analyst Alexander Klaskouski, the street protests irritate Belarusian authorities more than anything else. While the procedure of election campaigns falsification has been well developed and works like a well-oiled machine, street protests are unpredictable and pose a threat to the regime. It is for this reason that the authorities seek to stifle all the attempts of any public political activity that is not in their favour.

Moreover, by suppressing these ultras groups, police feel they are sending a signal that will help to prevent any political protests that might occur during the World Ice Hockey Championship that Minsk will be hosting in May.

The tournament creates a  unique opportunity for the Belarusian political elite to organise and carry out a large scale PR campaign that can change the negative image of the Belarusian political regime in the West. But, uncontrolled groups of ultras and football hooligans may spoil the event's well-manucured TV broadcasts.

The subculture of ultras in Belarus is not as popular as in Poland, Russia or Ukraine. Still, given the current complete inability for any opposition political movements to mobilise people for anti-government protests, these ultras can be treated as one of a few groups capable of raising street protests.

The authorities’ aspiration to prevent any kind of visible outdoor political activity has created a unique situation in which the nation's intellectual elite have become supporters of a marginal, often violent subculture.

On the other hand, the repressive actions taken by the authorities for posting a picture online demonstrates the skittishness of the officials that the Ukrainian revolution has caused.

The Belarusian authorities understand that if thousands protesters taking to the streets could eventually lead to the collapse of the its long-standing authoritarian political regime.