Sunday, 6 June 2010

Outdoor drinking ban fails to solve problem

When asked what they especially enjoy about Ukraine, I often hear visitors mention the ability to drink beer on the city’s central square, smoke anywhere and similar liberties banned long ago in many countries.

Well, openly drinking on Maidan is no longer possible. As of Feb. 11, a new law came into effect that bans consumption of alcoholic drinks in public places including parks, transport, sports grounds, children’s playgrounds -- in fact, bans it anywhere outside bars or your own home. Will such a ban work? After all, the ban on smoking in many public places has barely made any difference.

About 11,000 people have already been fined since the new outdoor drinking ban came into effect. That is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people who drink outside.

In my view, this new ban is another tiny step towards a civilized society. But many of my fellow Ukrainians are angered by it. This is hardly surprising – many consider drinking anywhere they want as a basic freedom.

Anyone who has walked in the park across from Taras Shevchenko University on a Friday evening, especially during warm season, has probably seen lots of youngsters and students drink the night away. Many of them simply cannot afford spending long hours at a central bar. Beer and cigarettes from nearby kiosks are so much cheaper. For some, vodka with a range of plastic shot glasses is also needed.

Shevchenko Park is just one of many examples.

Prior to the ban, crowds of drinking kids could be seen all over Maidan Nezalezhnosti, as well as in the underground passage right under it, and all along the benches on Khreshchatyk. Kontraktova Square, where Kyiv-Mohyla Academy is located, is another hot spot.

But, of course, kids are not the only ones drinking. Adults lead by example, but tend to booze in quieter residential areas, often right in front of apartment buildings where they reside. They also often don’t manage to clean up after themselves.

For some, any time of the day is good for drinking. I have often seen people getting into buses in the morning with a beer in hand. What away to start a day! You think coffee’s bad? Think again.

Another side effect of unrestricted drinking is violence. The drunken hordes of gopniks (skinheads) wandering the streets are prone to hostility. They can get violent even when sober, but alcohol makes them 10 times as dangerous.

Possibly the most disgusting display of Ukraine’s drinking culture is the sight of those who have passed out on the ground or at bus stops. Before passing out, many of these people have no problem drinking in front little kids on the playground and then relieving themselves under a tree.

Certainly, there are polite, tidy and moderate drinkers. But the percentage of the “uncivilized” and “uncontrollable” ones will always be much higher.

Even before the most recent drinking ban, another new law was adopted in January. Finally beer and drinks with low alcohol content, the so-called “alco-pops,” were defined as alcoholic and therefore off-limits to those under 18 years of age. Those selling alcoholic drinks to minors can be fined Hr 6,800.
Supermarket cashiers usually try to obey the rules. But there are plenty of other ways for minors to get alcoholic drinks from small shops, kiosks and outdoor markets.

Alcohol is simply too available in Ukraine. Even with the increase in prices over the last few years, you can still buy decent beer or vodka cheaply, compared to many European countries.

But it’s not only about prices. You can easily and quickly buy a drink from one of the small kiosks scattered all over the city, especially abundant in residential areas. Specializing in alcohol and cigarettes, they are usually open late or even all night. These vendors care too much about income to stop selling alcohol to anyone who pays.

Police now frequently scan central streets for violators. However, there is a simple way to go around the drinking ban. Just put your bottle in a bag and you’re good to go, as many Kyivans do. Certainly, those drinking in the inner courtyards of their houses do not have much reason to fear that a police officer will wander by.

These outdoor parties can be stopped only if people realize that, if they consider themselves to be human beings, not pigs, they should act accordingly.

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