Mongolia struggles to cope with rise in abuse of alcohol

AFP, Taipei Times, Tuesday 23 September 2003, Page 5

The proliferation of cheap vodka is helping fuel a destructive increase in consumption, leading to a rash of violent crime

Alcohol abuse could be Mongolia’s biggest stumbling block to economic and social progress, with women especially falling victim to a daily round of vodka-fuelled violence.

In the supermarkets of Ulan Bator, the north Asian country’s charmless, Soviet-era capital, the amount of alcohol on sale is remarkable. Dozens of brands of vodka, the most popular drink, crowd the shelves.

And as night falls, dozens of capitalist-inspired bars in the salubrious city center and the seedy outskirts disgorge gallons of white spirits and beer. Mongols—men and women, young and old—like to drink. A lot.

It’s a gift from the Russians, it’s not a Mongolian tradition. These people aren’t violent, said Sister Marie-Dominique, director of the Fraternity Hospital, where a number of alcoholics, sometimes covered in wounds from fighting or self-mutilation, end up.

This human detritus is the result of extreme poverty spawned by Mongolia’s new economic liberalization as leaders hurry to turn the page on 70 years of soviet communism.

For 100 tugrik (less than US$0.10) nomadic cattle-drivers, driven from their lands by natural disasters, and unemployed workmen can treat themselves to a glass of methanol-contaminated vodka from China. The drink has devastating effects on these under-nourished, unhealthy men.

About 100km from Ulan Bator, criminal alcoholics are locked up in a special prison.

Mongolia’s free press is full of sordid tales and, increasingly, bloody crimes committed for a fistful of cash.

Alcoholism is not Mongolia’s only problem and is not restricted to the poor. Ruined investors also fall prey in a country which produces 26 liters of alcohol per capita every year, mostly for the domestic market.

But if alcoholics are victims, their partners suffer even more.

Alcohol is often the foremost cause of violence, along with poverty and unemployment, explained Purevjav Narantuya, a counsellor at the national anti-violence center.

We are getting more and more appeals for help. But that’s more because of women’s awareness than a huge rise in cases, said a female worker.

I think democracy brings transparency to a society and rights for women, which is a good thing, said Narantuya, adding that women were increasingly leaving their husbands rather than suffer domestic abuse.

Sister Marie-Dominique added: Take the alcohol out of Mongolia and it’s the most wonderful country in the world.