Fatal Kyrgyz Addiction

The authorities in Kyrgyzstan are concerned over growing levels of alcoholism

Fatal Kyrgyz Addiction

The authorities in Kyrgyzstan are concerned over growing levels of alcoholism

Village leaders recently took the extraordinary step of banning alcohol in some areas of Kyrgyzstan's Narynsky oblast. The move was prompted by concern at widespread alcoholism, which religious leaders say is lowering moral standards and seriously affecting the health of the nation.

The level of alcoholism here is certainly a problem. One businessman commented on the state of his own village, Uch Emchek, where 400 families get through 200 bottles of homebrewed vodka a day. Such alcohol abuse is now a serious concern.

In one of Kyrgyzstan's abuse centres, the aroma of medicines and sweat mixes with the stench of human misery. This is where alcoholics and drug addicts are kept, their dead eyes and unco-ordinated movements deeply depressing to any fellow countryman who decides to visit.

Viktor Yurchenko has been in charge of the centre since Soviet days. He attributes Kyrgyz addictive tendencies to years of living in a society isolated from the outside world, when drinking was one of the few pleasures permitted. Then, when the economy worsened, the state was forced to supplement its budget by selling vodka and wine. "In some villages, all there was in shop windows was flour, sugar and vodka," says Yurchenko.

Many people have taken to drinking as a refuge from the difficult conditions associated with the transition to independence, such as widespread unemployment.

A third of abusers are reputable entrepreneurs and businessmen, Yurchenko continues, but the majority are people whose main aim in life is to drink on a daily basis.

"Some have a genetic tendency towards alcoholism, whereas others are here as a result of the revolutionary changes in society, because of which they have lost their bearings," says Yurchenko. "According to surveys, 98 per cent of high school students have tried spirits, and every year over 300 people are taken to hospital with alcohol poisoning."

Official statistics point to a decrease in the number of alcoholics since 1991, with 2161 registered alcoholics dropping to 961 today.

But this can be explained by the fact that treatment for alcoholism during the Soviet era was free and compulsory. Offenders were sent to sobering up centres. Repeat offenders ended up in "Work Dispensary Camps," where conditions were as severe as prison.

During the transition to independence, both the sobering up centres and the camps were closed, and state control of home distilling was relaxed. When homebrew - often made from dubious ingredients - began appearing on the market, its lower prices made it extremely popular.

The moral foundations of society began to be eroded. Bad ingredients led to hundreds of poisonings a year. Sometimes, whole families were affected, with no one left sober, or alive, to bury the dead. Several men died from alcohol poisoning during drinking bouts.

The malaise reaches all sectors of society. One abuse specialist claims to be treating oil barons and local politicians.

"Treatment is a last resort, " said one specialist. "If there is no government policy against alcoholism, then the gene bank of the nation will eventually be on the point of destruction."

The prohibition in Naryn oblast could be seen as a step in the right direction, then. But ingrained habits die hard; at one recent wedding organised by clergymen, non-alcoholic drinks were served at the table. Once the ceremony was over, though, many guests walked around the corner and continued to celebrate in the "traditional" fashion, with copious amounts of alcohol.

Hard-core drinkers in Naryn aren't likely to be bowed by prohibition, either, but are bound to continue drinking at home. Only the most optimistic believe the prohibition will prove to be effective.

Sultan Jumagulov is a regular IWPR contributor.

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