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Kazakstan's Drinking Frenzy

Doctors are up in arms at new legislation they believe will worsen an already serious alcohol problem
By Eduard Poletaev

Kazak health workers are outraged by the government's intention to slash duty on hard liquor. The country already has a chronic alcohol problem and the legislation, they say, will cause drinking to spiral.


The government says that the move is necessary to induce drinkers to buy from official outlets rather than the black market and will increase much needed revenue. At the moment they are losing 50 per cent of revenue from illicit sales.


Doctors say the government is turning a blind eye to the country's larger problem. They believe there are one million alcoholics in the country - five times higher than official figures suggest - and that this is having dire social effects.


Alcohol is one of the few Kazak products that has no problem with foreign competition. There are 217 officially registered producers, supplying 90 per cent of the local market. They promote their produce with a relatively highly level of sophistication and lavish advertising campaigns that target the country's youth in particular.


Sport is a valuable medium for alcohol producers who sponsor numerous local and national events. Some even own clubs of their own, such as the firm Bastau, which owns the national football champions, Irtysh. It lends a certain irony to President Nazarbaev's campaign to promote 'A Healthy Way of Living.' But, as basketball player Maxim Nikishin comments, sport and booze are hardly strangers, given the tradition of binge drinking that inevitably follows any victory - and defeat.


And they're targeting not just youth but the despondency that drives many people to drink. "Many Kazaks do not believe our country will ever flourish," says Irina Lifshits, a sociologist. "This makes for apathy and profound depression from which people seek escape via the bottle."


"In my practice I see more and more girls under the age of 20 who have already become confirmed alcoholics," therapist Ainur Maikotova says.


With the rise in young alcoholics comes a commensurate rise in alcohol-related crime. The papers are full of reports about murders, thefts and violent physical attacks carried out under the influence.


More worryingly, schools - which might have been expected to dissuade pupils from taking to the bottle, are actively encouraging pupils to drink.


"At one secondary school in Almaty,' says journalist Milena Levchenko, pupils and teachers get drunk together after class.' Medical student Yulia Kusnetsova says drinking is a favourite means of resolving a disagreement, describing the dispute-settling 'gentleman's kit' as: one bottle of vodka, one bottle of cognac and a bottle of champagne.


Doctors are at the top of the drinkers' league, along with teachers, the military, police officers and somewhat surprisingly, geologists. According to psychologist Irina Yubkina, remote villages are the communities most prey to the scourge of alcoholism, with up to 80 per cent of adults tied to the bottle.


Although there have been official moves to counter the problem of alcoholism, Health Ministry specialists generally take a gloomy view. Already, with quality vodka selling at one US dollar a bottle, spirits are more accessible than ever.


Galia Kudeiarova, the former chief psychiatrist in Kazakstan, said Kazak families have become heavier drinkers than the Russians, a trend that is bound to have serious consequences for future generations.


Toxicologist Gaukhar Rakhimova says that Kazaks have an exceptionally low tolerance to alcohol. Social drinking often turns into inveterate drunkenness, she says.


Meanwhile, doctors in Kazakstan are battling to implement a long-term programme to inform people of the dangers of alcohol abuse and call to everybody's attention the fact that both society and the state are suffering.


Eduard Poletaev is a regular IWPR contributor


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