Belarus is now officially the world’s heaviest drinking nation; and the socio-economic consequences are enormous.
In May of this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a global status report on alcohol and health. According to the report, Belarus heads the list of consumption of pure alcohol per person each year. Those of the population who are 15 and over, drink an average of 17.5 litres per person, while Belarusian men consume as much as 27.5 litres per person. In comparison, the average figure globally is 6.2 litres of pure alcohol per person each year.
The Belarusian Government, however, is not willing to accept this label of the world’s number one drinking nation. Following the WHO report, the Ministry of Health hastened to refute the figures, claiming that it is only about 11 litres of alcohol per person. However, the Ministry forgot to mention that this figure was obtained by taking the entire population into account, rather than using the WHO methodology of only including those aged 15 years and older. According to official data, there are 170,000 registered alcoholics in Belarus, which constitutes almost 2% of the population; and 75% of Belarusians drink alcohol in some way or another.
According to official data, there are 170,000 registered alcoholics in Belarus, which constitutes almost 2% of the population.
Unsurprisingly, the world’s top five alcohol-consuming countries are all in Eastern Europe – Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, Russia and Romania. Of course, the region is renouned for its long tradition of excessive alcohol consumption but why is it that Belarus now finds itself at the head of the pack?
An important point to bear in mind when answering this question is that there is a marked difference between the drinking cultures of urban and rural areas in Belarus. On the surface, a Belarusian city does not look all that different from any other European city, in which much less alcohol is consumed: drunkards do not lie in the streets, and, in general, public safety is high – one of the few positive aspects of Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule. But if you travel further out into the villages then the picture begins to change quite dramatically; there, practically all inhabitants drink, irrespective of the time of day.
If you travel further out into the villages then the picture begins to change quite dramatically.
Collective farms (kolkhozy) still constitute the basis of the economy in rural Belarus, a legacy of the USSR. Unlike other Soviet republics, however, Belarus has barely reformed its agriculture since Soviet days, and has kept the kolkhozy at its core.
The kolkhozy, in which the state has in recent years invested $37 billion, are in crisis, and large numbers of them are unprofitable enterprises. Wages in agriculture are lower than in any other branch of the economy – only 65% of the average wage in Belarus. Due to poor management, the earnings of collective farmers are not incentivised, and, as a consequence, people are simply not interested in the results of their labour. At the same time, farmwork is hard work, and people often work seven days a week. On the rare days that farmers do not work, they are confronted with the same problem that everyone else in the village is faced with: a severe lack of entertainment options.
Cultural life in the village is almost non existent.
Cultural life in the village is almost non existent. In the USSR, villages had a certain cultural infrastructure, with clubs and libraries and so forth, but today most of them have fallen into disrepair. Yet local shops are almost always fully stocked with alcohol. Sometimes the only form of entertainment for young people is the local discos, of which only a few remain. Naturally, this often involves the consumption of alcohol and, not uncommonly, fighting.
People in rural areas have little or no choice – either they work on collective farms for a few kopecks, or they move to the city, or they drink. Young people often choose the second option, while middle-aged and older people tend to opt for the other two.
This state of affairs can be traced back to perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rural way of life was almost entirely transformed, people are still grappling with the consequences; and the state’s agricultural policy has hardly helped the situation.
Vera, 72 years old, is from a village near Minsk: ‘Until the 1980s and early 1990s, the older generation still lived in the village – they supported the large farms and worked on them. These people didn’t even have a drink on holidays, they always knew their limits and had a more cultured way of drinking. But with perestroika and the collapse of the USSR, the older generation began to leave and the young just didn’t want to farm. Collective farms declined, there was no work and drinking became the favourite pastime of villagers. By the 2000s, due to mass alcohol abuse, the majority of the younger generation who had not left for the cities had died of illnesses or accidents related to alcohol. This is especially true of the men; you can count the number of men left in the village on one hand.’
‘You can count the number of men left in the village on one hand.’
Lyudmila is 82 years old, and from a village in the Maladečna area of Minsk region. She shared a few stories with me that show what life is like for many in Belarusian villages today. Such stories are far from uncommon:
‘Three weeks ago my 61-year-old drunk neighbour died when his house burned down. Another neighbour of mine, 40 years old at the time, died right outside there on the street. She had been drinking heavily when fell she in the road. Her husband, who was less drunk than she was, pulled her corpse home on his sledge. That night he slept in the bath. Another neighbour died in the garden of one of these houses – vodka. When she used to go on her binges her husband would lock her in the cellar and pass food to her through the window. Now he’s started drinking too and he just recently had a stroke.’
Oleg, 30 years old, is from the same village. He used to drink a lot but now that he’s moved to Minsk he drinks less: ‘there is practically no one left from my crowd of what was once about 30 people. Those who left are still alive. This year Igor died from drink; he was 33. Someone else died in a car crash; he was just 20. Filipp had just gone cold turkey when he committed suicide; he too was 33. Igor, 33, got "village liver." Then there’s the Tretyakov brothers: one got frostbite when he was drunk, and die; and some drunk Cossack beat Vasya to death.’
But Belarusians do not only drink in the villages. Working people in Minsk are also not averse to indulging to excess, although they have far more cultural alternatives, and the standard of living in general is much higher. This can be seen first hand if, in the evenings after work, you take a walk around the shops that are situated near the major state-owned enterprises, such as the Minsk Automobile Plant. Tens or even hundreds of workers of various ages, but mostly men, buy alcohol from the shops, and sit around drinking right by the entrance. Drinking on the street is forbidden in Belarus but the police turn a blind eye, provided the workers do not start any trouble.
Drinking on the street is forbidden in Belarus but the police turn a blind eye, provided the workers do not start any trouble.
But those are the workers. Others who, due to alcohol dependency, have already given up work, have a rather different daily routine. They have already started drinking in the morning. They wait for the shop to open, and immediately go to stock up on cheap fruit wine, commonly known here as ‘ink.’ Pyotr, 54, is a former alcoholic currently in therapy. He recalls the days when that was his life:
‘My wife kicked me out of the house because of my drinking. I went to stay with my drinking buddy. It’s scary to even think about those days: it was all a blur. Each morning we would go and stock up: we each got four 0.7 litre bottles of “ink.” We didn’t drink vodka because Vanya started to choke on it. In the morning, we would drink a bottle, sleep, then drink another, then sleep some more. Almost three litres of this stuff a day. And this isn’t counting when we had visitors. If anyone else came, then of course the dose increased.’
According to experts in drug and alcohol abuse, the production of ‘ink’ is one of the main factors for alcoholism in Belarus. It creates dependency far more quickly than vodka, and is far cheaper. With the cost of vodka at six or seven dollars per half litre, ‘ink’ only costs about two dollars. In addition, ‘ink’ is a very low quality wine with a high alcohol content (18%), which causes serious damage to health.
The social fallout
When reading Belarusian criminal reports, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are reading the script of a horror film.
When reading Belarusian criminal reports, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are reading the script of some terrible thriller or horror film: ‘in one of the villages in the Svetlaborsk region, a brother and sister (15 and 21 years old) were drinking spirits with their parents; following a quarrel, the children beat their father to death.’ ‘In Pinsk, a man in a state of alcoholic intoxication killed his own mother.’ But these are not film scripts; they are the realities of daily life for large sections of Belarusian society.
Excessive drinking is tearing up the very fabric of our society. Domestic crimes, for example, almost always involve alcohol. Moreover, although it is not spoken about openly, 80% of murders and serious physical injuries occur due to alcohol intoxication. Belarus is among the top ten countries with the highest suicide rates, and, in the majority of cases, these suicides are directly or indirectly caused, and influenced by alcoholism or heavy drinking. Belarus also ranks second in the world behind Russia for the number of divorces per capita; and every second marriage in this country falls apart due to excessive drinking.
According to calculations by Belarusian experts, the socio-economic cost of alcohol to Belarus is 7.2% of its GDP, while the revenue from the sale of alcohol only amounts to 1% of GDP. It is the economic burden of excessive alcohol consumption rather than the social fallout, it seems, that has encouraged the Government to implement, albeit very cautiously, anti-alcohol policies.
The war on alcohol
Since 1 January 2013, Belarus has banned so-called ‘ink’ fruit wines, replacing them with fruit wines of improved quality. Those who drink them, however, say that the difference between the improved and old wine is minimal. Since October 2013, there have been tougher penalties for drink driving – the first time a driver is caught, he/she has to pay $750-$1500; the second time his/her car may be impounded. Public adverts for alcohol in Belarus are now restricted, and the Government is considering raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21. Alcohol prices are another measure against alcoholism; over the past few years the price of alcohol has doubled.
The state is also pursuing rather less conventional and coercive methods to tackle excessive drinking.
But the State is also pursuing rather less conventional and coercive methods to tackle excessive drinking. These methods are often taken straight from the Soviet handbook. The system of therapy and labour preventoria, for example, remains intact in Belarus. If, in the space of one year, a citizen commits a number of offences whilst intoxicated, they can be sent to a preventorium for one year. There, the ‘patient’ is ‘treated’ with the help of forced labour. According to some reports, there are currently around 5000 people in preventoria in Belarus today.
Alcoholic parents who have been stripped of their parental rights by the courts are also regularly forced into labour. Because of their lifestyles, they are often unemployed, so the State has recently begun forcing them into employment (usually state employment because no-one else will have them) so as to earn money to pay for the upkeep of their children in orphanages. Local police are left to do the ‘forcing…’
The younger generation
Despite these measures, alcohol use is deeply ingrained in the lifestyle of many, Belarusians; and turning this situation around will not be easy. As a society we need more effective measures, such as radical restrictions on the places where, and times when alcohol can be sold. However, the Government is rightly fearful of social discontent, and is therefore adverse to taking drastic steps.
Reading the above, one might get the impression that Belarus is a country without much of a future. But there is reason to remain optimistic. In recent years, many young people, especially those living in the larger cities, have been adopting healthy lifestyles. This does not just involve less drinking; many have swapped cars and public transport for bicycles, which are now a common site on the streets of our cities. In general, you find that the young are focusing more and more on their careers and personal development. But not everyone is able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and for those people, and for society at large, it is important that the Government start working faster, and in a more humane way, to try and change the Belarusian relationship with drink.