WHO: Belarusians are the Heaviest Drinkers in the World
In the middle of May World Health Organisation published a global report on alcohol and health. Belarus, which hardly ever appears at the top of global ratings, this time received a rather sad fame. It took the first place in the world as to alcohol consumption with 17,5 litres of pure alcohol per capita.
The Ministry of Health of Belarus denies these figures, saying WHO used a wrong methodology. But the figures from other Belarus officials that appeared earlier seem to match WHO data.
Alcohol remains a major reason of crime, suicide and health problems in Belarus. The government took some steps to restrict the production, selling and advertisement of alcohol.
It banned low-quality plonk, increased punishment for drunk driving, pushed up alcohol prices and is going to raise the legal drinking age to 21 soon. However, it will need more comprehensive measures to promote healthy lifestyle and education among the citizens.
The Nation of Boozers?
Although the average of 17.5 liters of pure alcohol per capita for Belarus looks already huge, for Belarusian males drink a whole 27.5 litres per capita! Meanwhile, the world average consumption is 6,2 litres. All countries in the top 10 drinkers present Central and Eastern Europe, except Andorra. Moldova took the second place, while Lithuania, the closest country to Belarus historically, was third.
As for the structure of consumed alcohol, spirits appeared most popular among Belarusians (47% of consumption), while beer has 17% and wine only 5%. The rest 30%, the “other” category in the graph most probably means cheap fruit wines (plonk), the favourite beverage of Belarusian alcoholics, and home-made vodka, called samahon.
In Belarus, there are officially 170,000 recorded alcoholics, or 1,8% of the whole population. But as many as 75% of population drink alcohol with varying frequency. During a talk with TUT.by journalists last year, a police official reported that 80% of murders and grave injuries in Belarus are committed under the influence of alcohol. Alcoholism also makes Belarus one of the world’s leaders in suicide. Only 11% of Belarusians completely abstain from alcohol.
Dynamics of Alcohol Consumption in Belarus
Source: WHO, Global status report on alcohol and health 2014.
Belarusian Government Disagrees
Belarusian Ministry of Health denies the figures provided by WHO. It says WHO wrongly counted the coefficient of unregistered alcohol consumption . The chief narcologist of the Ministry Ivan Kanarazaŭ argues that Belarus has an monopoly on alcohol production and administrative liability for home-made vodka production. He also cites the official statistics where the consumption rate is 11.14 litres per capita.
But the problem is Belarusian statistics counts all persons including infants, while WHO counts only 15+ population. According to Kanarazaŭ, the Ministry communicated with WHO on this issue and it agreed that a single methodology for unregistered alcohol consumption does not exist.
However, the officials of another public health organisation give similar to WHO figures. According to Siarhei Asipčyk, deputy director of Republican Centre for Mental Health, in 2012 the level of consumption per capita including the unregistered alcohol reached 22 litres. According to the estimates of Belarusian experts, the social and economic expenses of alcoholism make 7,2% of the GDP, while the income from alcohol trade accounts for only 1% of GDP.
Currently, Belarus is implementing a national anti-alcohol programme that is scheduled to run from 2011-2015. It uses a number of tools that seem to help to reduce the nation’s overall consumption and the culture of drinking.
Since 1 January 2013 Belarus has banned the production of plonk, one of the most harmful alcoholic beverages available, a drink that is very popular among society’s less privileged. It is cheap and quite strong in comparison to regular grape wines. Earlier experiments in several regions proved that the ban of plonk helped to reduce alcohol-related crime and death rates. As positive a step in the right direction in combating alcoholism, the ban on plonk has come too late – it has already taken the lives of thousands of Belarusians over its two decades of independence.
Belarus also strengthened the law against drunk driving with its latest iteration coming into power on 24 October 2013. A driver now mus tpay a $750-1,500 fine for the first offence and should they be a repeat offender, their car will be confiscated by the authorities, learn more here. The government also restricted the public advertisement of alcohol. One would be hard pressed to find it on the streets of Belarus and the media is allowed to show alcohol advertising only at certaim times of the day.
Almost at the same time as the WHO report appeared, the Ministry of the Interior announced that they are preparing a bill which will raise the legal drinking age to 21 (it is currently 18). The law may be introduced as soon as 2015. It will also restrict the time at which alcohol can be sold to 9 am to 10 pm.
Last, but not least, over recently the prices for alcohol have considerably grown, thanks in part to Eurasian integration, and now half a litre of vodka costs $6-7 – twice as much as a few years before. According to the authorities, all these policies have brought about a positive impact on Belarusian society – for instance, the number of alcohol-related crimes decreased 11% in 2012-2013.
LTPs – the Soviet Heritage
Belarus along with Turkmenistan remain the only former Soviet country to preserve the system of sanatorium labour centres (LTP in Russian abbreviation). The centres emerged in the USSR as the places for treating alcoholics with forced labour. In modern Belarus a court can send a person to LTP if they have committed several offences over the year under the influence of alcohol.
The patients typically are forced to do woodwork or labour with metal. They also receive an opportunity to study and receive something akin to a license to work in these fields. The patients are paid a salary, but they can only spend it at a local shop that has no alcohol or, alternatively, they can save up the money they have earned and spend it after they have left the sanatorium.
Speaking before the parliament on 14 May, the Minister of the Interior Ihar Šunievič said that “it would be great to reduce the number of LTPs in the country but the current situation shows that such measures are not reasonable”.
When asked about the number of LTPs in Belarus, he refused to reveal the figures, just saying that “there are a lot of them”. According to information that was previously available from media sources, today there are around 5000 people working in LTPs in Belarus.
The War Must Go On
Despite some effective policies and positive changes in recent years, Belarusians remains among the world’s heaviest drinkers as the WHO data shows. One can still buy alcohol in any store within a stone’s throw. While people are drinking less heavily, they are still harming their health. Many people see alcohol as the only means available to them to relax and be recreational.
The idea of a healthy lifestyle remains unpopular among Belarusians, especially for older generations and village dwellers. Apparently, many people also feel alienated in Belarus because of the very low level of permissible public activity. Needless to say, but in addition to all of this, alcohol remains a profitable business for the state and it has its own influential lobbyists who are actively a work promoting their interests.
There is a widespread opinion among Belarusians that the authorities do not want to deploy a real war against alcohol, since drunk people are easier to manipulate. On the contrary, however, law enforcement bodies like the police and the public prosecutor’s office (the proverbial basement of Lukashenka’s regime), appear to be the most active advocates of the war on alcohol.
The government needs to undertake further steps towards promoting a healthy lifestyle and creating the infrastructure to support it, through developing an anti-alcohol educational programme and accessible healthcare in local communities. Still, some positive trends can be observed with regards to the public’s attitude towards healthy living have started to surface. More and more young people are exchanged in bike riding, jogging and other healthy activities in the nation’s cities, while only a few years ago you would be hard pressed to find anyone engaged in this kind of active lifestyle.
Belarus Reality Check 2014
On 10 April 2014, the 3rd Belarus Reality Check meeting brought together in Brussels key international and Belarusian experts as well as donors and policy makers.
The Reality Check Policy Review held under Chatham House rules allows individuals to present different local and international perspectives with an emphasis on facts and evidence. Below is a short summary of the discussion.
After the annexation of Crimea, Belarus is in an even more complicated situation due its dependency on Russia. The economy is slowing down to a dangerous level, while the government lacks a new economic vision. However, subsidies from Russia and a change in the government's social contract with its citizens may save the day for Lukashenka`s regime.
Despite Russia's similar dip into a recession, the hefty Crimea absorption costs, the needed $4-5bn for the Belarusian budget it is still likely to be allocated to Belarus by Russia. After all, Belarus is Russia`s only formal ally and the poster child of Eurasian integration. Lukashenka has also been manoeuvring successfully in the Ukrainian crisis: wavering between the position of Kyiv and Moscow, while maintaining high level working relationships with both.
Minsk's small, yet recognisable, steps towards moving away from an broad industrial economy towards a locally-based development and information/knowledge-based economy may lead to a subsequent change in the social contract. Already there are positive signs in this direction, including less bureaucracy and a higher number private business initiatives.
After Ukraine, a successful revolution may bring Russian troops to Belarus, so it is no wonder that Lukashenka’s position has strengthened Read more
But to continue on with these kinds of reforms, Belarus needs to ease its isolation: allow a qualified labour force to enter the country, adopt Western-style management and decrease state control over the economy. At the same time it needs to manage such reforms gradually by maintaining Russian subsidies to keep Belarusians employed in inefficient state factories.
The traditional opposition is in an identity crisis since the Ukraine conflict: according to the latest polls, only 3.6 % of Belarusians support a “revolutionary” scenario similar to Kyiv’s example. The already low support for the opposition has dropped even further. After Ukraine, a successful revolution may bring Russian troops to Belarus, so it is no wonder that Lukashenka’s position has strengthened.
Social contract: Less State, More Private
The gradual movement towards sustainable development as a reaction to global and regional changes has been gaining momentum in Belarus. Signals of this transition are becoming more and more prononounced from cuts in public administration expenditures and a growing number of private businesses.
Yet at the same time, the state is maintaining, or even increasing, Russian subsidies in order to keep Belarusians employed in its inefficient enterprises. The security sector's control over private business has yet to unabate. Debt and devaluation is not that important within this context as Belarus can still sell its companies or fixed assets. But the main challenge of keeping its educated work force at home remains a prominent issue: Russia continues to attract qualified Belarusians with higher salaries and better opportunities.
Although the general feeling in the West is that nothing is changing in Belarus, it is important to highlight that 25% of the government employees have been laid off recently, and other various additional criteria were were met in order to position Belarus as recipients of targeted social support. One third of the obligatory pension system has been cut due to these changes.
As the graph above shows, despite the wide spread “social welfare myth”, the effectiveness of Belarus’ social protection system is low when compared to a majority of Western countries. Taking into account the measures undertaken to further decrease targeted social assistance, the effectiveness and scale of the welfare state in Belarus is likely to decline even further.
However, the over-arching issue that can be found here is tolerance toward these changes as well as the changing expectations of the society. Due to its effective control over society, Belarus’ government is in a much stronger position to carry out such reforms compared not only to Ukraine and Russia but also to the Baltic states. Patterns matter as well: Lukashenka cuts in the state administration apparatus positions him well with Belarusians, as it shows he plays no favourites.
Belarus’ government is in a much stronger position to carry out such reforms compared not only to Ukraine and Russia but also to the Baltic States Read more
Cutting social benefits, though, is not as painful as cutting subsidies to state enterprises – this would mean a real redrafting of the social contract that has been in place since Lukashenka came to power. Yet without such measures, international financial institutions will not be willing to provide loans or financing to the Belarusian economy and the question of Russian subsidies and their availability becomes a key question. For example, Belarus is requesting that in exchange for signing the Eurasian Economic Union, it would not have to pay Russia oil export duties in the future.
The duties Minsk paid to Russia amounted to $38bn in 2012 and to $33bn in 2013. Such funds would practically solve the problem of the ‘cash gap’ in the Belarusian budget as well as ostensibly give more freedom to Belarus to resist Russian pressure and its demands (such as privatisation). Therefore Moscow is unlikely to agree with such a requirement, though it should be noted that the other Eurasian Union partner, Kazakhstan, is also not supportive of these demands.
After Crimea: Eurasian Economic Union in the Making
The crisis in Ukraine has further decreased the trust between EEU partners but it is unlikely to undermine the integration process. Besides Russia, no country has any aims to make political gains from the EEU: economic benefits are the key issue at stake, which means that Belarus’ rationale for joining the EEU is its potential access to both its transit route to Asia and to the Russian market.
Russia reduced a number of external tariffs as a result of EEU negotiations – contrary to the commonly held opinion that Russia dictates the conditions of the Eurasian integration – the costs to its own economy for the integration project was even estimated to be some $40 bn/year.
Belarus finds itself no longer between Russia and the West but between the Eurasian Economic Union and the “Russian World” policy Read more
Lukashenka's de facto acceptance of the Crimean referendum was an act of reciprocity: Russia has always accepted the results of Belarus`s dubious elections (and referendums). However, Lukashenka continues to maintain balance as he came out strongly against the federalisation of Ukraine. Yet this balancing act has changed: given the weakness of the Western response to the Ukraine crisis, Belarus finds itself no longer between Russia and the West but between the Eurasian Economic Union and the “Russian World” policy. In the latter, there is no independent Belarus.
The scale of penetration of Russian financial capital into the Belarusian market is a more powerful tool than all other agreements within the Eurasian integration. Currently, Russian capital controls seven out of 31 banks operating in Belarus. The influence of Russian capital will likely grow after signing the EEU treaty as a result of better entry conditions into the Belarusian banking sector.
It is important to note that Russian banks, besides playing an important commercial role, also serves as a tool for the Russian government to analyse and understand the economic, political and social developments in the country. In other words, they are not only performing a commercial, but also a political function.
Lukashenka allowed Russian investors to invest in Belarusian enterprises without giving them access to their managerial functions Read more
Until now Lukashenka was able to cunningly solve the problem of Russian investors: he allowed them to invest in Belarusian enterprises without giving them access to their managerial functions. The conflict within the potash cartel last summer – when Belarus placed the Uralkali CEO under arrest and detained him for months – was a very good indicator of how Lukashenka treats Russian businesses. Another example is his refusal to import oil through Rosneft: Russian oil companies continue to sell oil to firms identified by Minsk.
Minsk has been able to control its local economic elites by controlling their income: small scale corruption is possible but under the watchful eye of the state secret services. Frequent corruption cases ensure the loyalty of these elites as there is a “kompromat” for everyone. Lukashenka has also created his own business elite. Improving business conditions does not only serve to better Belarus’ rank in the Doing Business ratings (doing business is easier in Belarus than in Russia), but it creates an atmosphere where a businessman who is satisfied with the current establishment and infrastructure will not have aspirations to change the current leadership.
Belarus could be described as a positive counter-example to Russia with respect to its rather low level of corruption and absence of uncontrolled organised crime. In the eyes of the Belarusian population, Belarus is a positive counter-example to the entire region with its stability, particularly when bearing in mind the unrest in Ukraine.
Relations with the EU: Silent Dialogue
The annexation of Crimea has further reduced the Lukashenka regime's ability manoeuver with the EU. Ukraine overshadows Belarus to a much larger extent than before, while Moscow is now more suspicious and aggressive. At the same time Belarus is the only country in the Eastern Partnership in control of all of its territorial integrity and its borders. Within this context the West's influence is likely to be balanced out with a more pragmatic policy than may be possible elsewhere in the region.
Belarus is the only country in the Eastern Partnership in control of its territorial integrity and its borders Read more
The main question – how the EU can achieve its grand vision, the democratisation of Belarus – remains unanswered. No realistic strategy and clear steps towards achieving this goal have emerged. Moreover, the Ukrainian crisis raises the issue of destabilisation throughout the entire region via an out of control downward spiral of zero sum internal politics taken to the extreme.
As seen from Minsk, there is no offer on the table from the EU that is comparable to the EEU. As much as the issue of the release of political prisoners is crucial for widening the ‘critical engagement’ policy, the absence of political prisoners in Belarus is a ‘weak’ goal for the EU in Belarus. Under the current circumstances, Minsk has no rationale to provide the EU with any concessions, that is, to release political prisoners.
The challenge of the EU`s policy towards Belarus is not so much the heralded "lack of unity" – it is the absence of serious interest and attention. Very few care about Belarus at the moment, with most of the issues at hand being stuck at a technical (working) level, without reaching any strategic depth (save, perhaps, the issue of whether Russia would use Belarus’ territory to invade Ukraine).
The current critical engagement – basically a silent (mostly technical) dialogue – is likely to develop further. Brussels could deepen this dialogue through an assistance package to give a helping hand to Minsk where it is needed (see social contract changes) while maintaining its human rights stance along with support for the opposition as well as civil society.
- Download full version of the non-paper in pdf format.
The Belarus Reality Check was organised with the support of and input from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (Germany), Pact (US), the European Endowment for Democracy (Brussels) and the Eastern Europe Studies Centre (Lithuania). This is a peer reviewed summary of the discussion and does not necessary reflect the opinion of the organisers.