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South Caucasus: Region Growing As Hub For International Drug Trafficking

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Central Asia is known as the preferred route for Afghan-produced narcotics destined for West European markets. But drug-enforcement officials say the South Caucasus -- strategically located between Asia and Europe -- is also a major transit point for narcotics. Corruption, instability, and separatist conflicts are all cited as being behind the region's rise in smuggling.

Prague, 9 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- On 1 March, the U.S. State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) released its annual review of progress in the global fight against drug trafficking.

The INL's "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report" praises recent efforts made by the three South Caucasus republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in curbing illicit drug trade. The three nations are all signatories of the three existing United Nations drug-control conventions. Since 2001 they have been engaged in the UN-sponsored Southern Caucasus Anti-Drug program, also known as SCAD. In addition, all three have taken steps to curb trafficking and prevent domestic drug use.

Armenia last year implemented a law on narcotics and psychotropic substances and is currently working on a draft bill to combat money laundering. Also last year, then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze signed into law an anti-laundering bill that was strengthened last month by the country's new leadership. Azerbaijan is currently working on a similar legal package that could be approved by parliament by the end of this year.

"The money that is generated by drug smuggling is being used to purchase weapons and ammunition. It also serves to finance these separatist regimes."
Yet, the INL believes a lot more remains for these countries to do in the fight against drug trafficking, especially since they are located in an area that is an important transit route for illicit trade to Western Europe. The U.S. agency expresses particular concern regarding Azerbaijan, which it says has emerged as a drug-trafficking hub after armed conflicts in former Yugoslavia disrupted traditional routes linking Iran to Western Europe via Turkey and the Balkans.

International experts believe heroin represents up to 80 percent of the illicit drugs transited through the region. Opium and marijuana are also smuggled.

Mezahir Efendiyev is Azerbaijan's national coordinator for the SCAD program. He told RFE/RL a number of factors are contributing to the region's emergence as a major drug-trafficking route. "If one takes into account, on the one hand, the fact that the three South Caucasus countries are geographically located between Asia and Europe and, on the other hand, the fact that the CIS states represent a major market for heroin, it is natural that this route should suit the drug mafias," he said. "This route, which originates in Afghanistan and goes to Europe through the South Caucasus and the rest of the CIS, is a very easy one. In addition, these countries acceded to independence roughly 10 years ago and they lack the modern technology that would enable them to prevent drug transit through the South Caucasus area."

Pavel Pachta works with the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a Vienna-based body that monitors implementation of UN drug conventions worldwide. He says the industrial South Caucasus area -- which lies at the crossroads of the so-called Balkan Route and its sister "Silk Road Route" linking Afghanistan to Europe through Central Asia -- is important not only as a transit point for drugs, but also as a potential provider of chemicals for Afghan-based heroin producers.

"The countries of the Caucasus are very close to these routes and, undoubtedly, there have been and there are attempts to use [them] for smuggling. On the one hand, drugs are coming from Afghanistan to the markets where there is a demand for them. On the other hand, chemicals are going in the [opposite] direction, because to manufacture heroin you need chemicals -- for example, acetic anhydride -- and these chemicals are smuggled into Afghanistan," Pachta said.

The INCB, which released its own annual report on 3 March, notes Afghanistan's production of opiates increased by 8 percent last year. The report blames authorities in neighboring Turkmenistan -- a major transit point for Afghan-made narcotics -- for failing to cooperate with the international community in the fight against drug trafficking.

International experts say Afghan-produced drugs reach Azerbaijan, the easternmost of the Caucasus republics, through two main routes. One goes directly through Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea. Another crosses the 611-kilometer-long land border between Azerbaijan and Iran. A third suspected route is the flight path recently opened between Kabul and Baku, although the INL says there is so far no evidence to support that theory.

Widespread corruption and the various armed conflicts that have plagued the South Caucasus since the late 1980s both contribute to making the region a haven for illicit trafficking. Georgia and Azerbaijan have each lost at least a quarter of their territory to separatist conflicts. Drug-enforcement officials say the self-proclaimed governments now leading these breakaway regions are suspected of profiteering from illegal trade, including drug trafficking. Authorities in Azerbaijan claim the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has become not only a favored transit route for drugs smuggled from Iran, but also a major heroin production center.

Mezahir Efendiyev of the UN-sponsored SCAD program says international drug experts have been barred from Karabakh by local rulers, and are thus unable to verify these claims. He also says a significant section of Azerbaijan's southern border has been under the control of ethnic Armenian troops for the past decade, making it even more difficult for the Azerbaijani government to fight drug trafficking from Iran.

Paata Nozadze is SCAD's national coordinator for Georgia. He says separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have created similar problems for the central government in Tbilisi. "These so-called hot spots, or uncontrolled areas, perfectly suit drug traffickers," he said. "The money that is generated by drug smuggling is being used to purchase weapons and ammunition. It also serves to finance these separatist regimes. This situation perfectly suits drug traffickers because all they have to do is strike a deal with local governments. Elsewhere they would have to make separate arrangements with border guards, customs officers, policemen, or state security officials. For them these conflict zones are much more advantageous."

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on 11 February described Abkhazia as a drug-trafficking corridor, prompting a swift protest from the separatist leadership in Sukhum.

Also last month, the recently elected South Caucasus leader -- who based his campaign on pledges to fight crime and corruption -- launched a security sweep to disarm Georgian guerrillas based in the western Samegrelo (Mingrelia) region, an area that borders Abkhazia. The so-called Forest Brothers group is suspected of controlling smuggling activities in the area in conjunction with Abkhaz groups and Russian peacekeepers posted on the other side of the demarcation line that separates the province from the rest of Georgia.

Narcotics reach Georgia from Azerbaijan, South Ossetia, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, from Armenia. A report prepared in 2002 for the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency says illicit drugs are then transited either through Abkhazia, the Black Sea port of Poti, or Batumi, the capital of the autonomous region of Adjaria. From there, they travel on to Ukraine and Romania.

Only a small percentage of illegal drugs transiting through the South Caucasus region are seized by law enforcement agencies.

In Azerbaijan, which for two years has been receiving U.S. counternarcotics assistance through the Freedom Support Act, the Interior Ministry last year conducted a nationwide operation against drug traffickers and local producers of poppy and cannabis plants.

SCAD program coordinator Efendiyev says that although Azerbaijan has shown some progress in combating drug trafficking, it still has a long way to go. "Only 10 to 15 percent of drugs that go through Azerbaijan are seized by our law enforcement agencies," he said. "In 2003, they seized over 211 kilograms of narcotic substances and destroyed more than 290 [tons] of narcotic plants. By comparison, no plantations were destroyed in Armenia and, in Georgia, only 34 tons were destroyed."

This month's report by the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs notes that although corruption permeates Azerbaijan's law enforcement sector, there is no evidence that local police officers are participating in the illicit production or distribution of narcotics. By contrast, in neighboring Georgia, a number of police officers were recently arrested and charged with involvement in the narcotics trade.

The amount of drugs seized in that country remains particularly low. Georgia's SCAD coordinator Paata Nozadze told RFE/RL: "The figures for 2003 are very small. They include only 3 kilograms of heroin, 8.3 kilograms of opium, and 42.4 kilograms of marijuana. This is all that has officially been seized. This is very little." The Georgian expert believes a lack of coordination among the agencies involved in the antinarcotics fight could explain why the amount of illegal drugs seized in the country is so small.

But there could be other reasons. A number of counternarcotics officials and policemen suspected of involvement in illicit trade activities were recently arrested in Georgia. This suggests that large volumes of contraband drugs are being unofficially seized, diverted and resold on the fast-expanding local black market.

Official statistics say there are just 18,000 drug users in Georgia, a country of roughly 4 million. But independent experts believe the actual number of drug consumers in that country is somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000.
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