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The East: Asian Heroin Pours Into Europe

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 3 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. says heroin from Afghanistan and other parts of southwest Asia "continues to pour into Europe along the Balkan Route," while Russian criminals are "playing an increasingly pivotal role in drug trafficking in Europe and Central Asia."

That assessment comes from the new State Department report on international narcotics control efforts. The report covers 1997 developments in 136 countries where U.S. and international law enforcement agencies consider drug and drug-related activities to be noteworthy. The list includes 24 nations in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The report was made public last week and sent to the U.S. Congress on Monday. It says that of all the illegal drugs people use, "heroin is the reigning hard drug of choice in much of the world."

Heroin is derived from the opium poppy, a plant that can grow almost anywhere. According to the U.S., most of Europe's heroin comes from Afghanistan, and the State Department says there was a very large crop of opium poppies harvested in Afghanistan last year. Burma is the biggest opium producer, but Afghanistan is second, and the State Department says more than 39,000 hectares of Afghan land were used for opium production.

The Taliban militia, says the U.S., controls 95 percent of the land where poppies are cultivated.

The Afghan heroin, the State Department says, "continues to move in large quantities along the Balkan Route's northern, central and southern branches into every important market in Europe, Russia, and the other countries of the former Soviet Union." The report adds that, from the size of heroin shipments confiscated by police, it appears that larger and larger amounts of heroin are entering the drug supply pipeline.

The U.S. says Romania, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Croatia and Slovenia all face important domestic drug problems because of the flow of Afghan heroin into Europe. The report adds that Turkish criminals control much of the Balkan Route heroin trade.

The State Department says organized crime groups in Russia are playing a more important role in the drug trade. According to the U.S., gangs with ties to Afghanistan that were established during the Soviet occupation of that country in the 1980s use their networks to move heroin into Central Asia and Russia and then to destinations in the Baltics and Western Europe.

The State Department report is required by U.S. law. It has been issued annually for the past 12 years. The report is prepared for the president, who must inform the U.S. Congress what the nations of the world are doing to meet international obligations on narcotics control. If the president cannot say that a government is at least making an effort to control the drug trade, that nation can be denied U.S. economic assistance.

Following are some key findings from the report on nations in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union:

ARMENIA - The State Department says Armenia is beginning to give the problem of narcotics trafficking greater attention. However, the U.S. also says the police and customs agents urgently need basic training in drug control, and there needs to be greater cooperation with neighboring countries. The authorities, says the U.S., recognize drug transit through Armenia as the most serious concern. The report also quotes national officials as saying that there has been a significant increase in illegal drug use in Armenia itself.

AZERBAIJAN - According to the U.S, Azerbaijan's main narcotics problem stems from its location along the transit route from Iran and Central Asia north to Russia. Azerbaijan has a 700-kilometer front with Iran, and the U.S. says the country does not have the resources to patrol that frontier effectively. The report says consumption and cultivation of illegal drugs in Azerbaijan are both low in comparison with other countries, but drug use appears to be increasing. The U.S. says the authorities recognize the threat of narcotics and are devising a national drug control strategy.

BELARUS - The U.S. report says Belarus has the potential to become a major drug transit and production site. The report says the government claims to lack the resources to combat drug trafficking, but the U.S. says, "the claim is somewhat dubious, given the extremely large police force -- 120,000 for a population of 10.7 million. U.S. ties with Belarus are strained because of what the U.S. regards as the government's appalling record on human rights. The U.S. says the country's record on human rights limits bi-lateral cooperation on drug control.

BULGARIA - Bulgaria's location makes it an important transit point for heroin and marijuana between Turkey and Western Europe. The U.S., however, says the Bulgarian government is making a concerted effort to fight narcotics trafficking, both domestically and internationally. The report did say that corruption among police and customs agents is still a problem in Bulgaria. However, the report also said that the Bulgarian government "has made the fight against organized crime and corruption a major part of its program and has launched an extensive reform effort."

CROATIA - The State Department says the consolidation of peace in the region has made Croatian authorities more concerned about an increase in drug trafficking. The report says the Ministry of the Interior has increased resources for anti-drug efforts, and the parliament has approved laws that aim to increase the effectiveness of police agencies. The U.S. says the government is paying more attention to the drug issue.

ESTONIA - In Estonia, the U.S. says the country's location, the continued increase of drug-related crimes and a small but growing population of drug users have raised concerns and prompted adoption of anti-drug legislation. However, the report also says the Estonian police and customs agents are benefiting from training by U.S. and European experts. The U.S. says it intends to offer additional training to Estonian authorities and continue to encourage anti-drug efforts.

GEORGIA - The U.S. says Georgia is not a significant producer of drugs, but is a secondary transit route for the flow of drugs from Central Asia into Europe. In addition, the U.S. says anti-drug efforts were a low priority issue for the authorities last year. The report says the lack of police resources and a reputation for corruption creates the potential for Georgia to become an important narcotics transit route in the future.

KAZAKHSTAN - The State Department says Kazakhstan is a popular corridor for heroin transit to Russia and Western Europe. The report says that increased trafficking and drug crop harvesting are Kazakhstan's most serious drug problems. However, the report also says the government has begun to focus on the problems. It also says law enforcement has shown interest in international cooperation.

KYRGYZSTAN - Kyrgyzstan, says the U.S., is also a significant drug transit point, and the U.S. contends the authorities are having a difficult time combating the drug trafficking problem. The U.S. says that, given the limited resources available to the authorities and the threat of continued unrest in neighboring Tajikistan, there is reason to believe that trafficking will continue.

LATVIA - The U.S. says drug trafficking and abuse are not yet serious problems in Latvia, but it also says they could become serious problems. The U.S. says this is because of Latvia's location, its highly developed transportation routes and its vulnerability to organized crime. However, the U.S. says the government is aware of these threats and is making efforts to combat them.

LITHUANIA - The U.S. report says Lithuania continues to contend with drug trafficking and abuse problems. The drug trade has increased, the U.S. says, and drug crimes were up by more than 20 percent last year. The parliament has given police more tools to fight drugs, and the U.S. says Lithuania is cooperating with other European countries and the U.S. to fight drug smuggling.

MOLDOVA - The U.S. says Moldova is not a significant drug producer, and the relative poverty of the country makes it unattractive as a market for illegal drugs. However, the U.S. says Moldova is being used as a transit point, but at the same time, the report says the government is making a serious effort to combat drug-related crimes. The government formed an elite police squad to fight organized crime and corruption, and the U.S. says Moldova is showing determination to meet its international obligations.

ROMANIA - The U.S. says arrests and confiscation of drugs increased in Romania last year. The report quotes authorities as saying that Romania is being used as a storage location for drugs destined for sale in Western Europe. The U.S. says Romanian authorities are making a concerted effort, despite financial limitations, to fight drug trafficking.

RUSSIA - The U.S. report says Russia is a prime conduit for illegal drugs that are destined for Western Europe, and it is also a minor producer of marijuana and heroin for domestic consumption. Russian authorities estimate that two million Russian use illegal drugs. Russian law enforcement increased its anti-drug activities last year, but the U.S. also says that weak regulations in the banking and financial sectors make it easy for organized criminals to hide their drug profits among other investments, a practice called money-laundering. The U.S. praised Russia for its anti-crime efforts, but it also said much more work remains.

SLOVAKIA - Slovakia was described by the U.S. as an important transit point for drugs from Russia, Ukraine and Southwest Asia that are intended for Western Europe. The U.S. also noted that the authorities recognize a growing domestic drug abuse problem as well. The report says that both demand by drug users and trafficking by criminals in Slovakia are on an upward trend. The government, says the U.S. responded in 1997 by increasing funding for law enforcement and by joining in more international cooperative efforts.

TAJIKISTAN - The U.S. says Tajikistan does not produce much opium but says it is an important transit point for drugs from southwest Asia. The U.S. says the confiscation of a large quantity of drugs last year shows the authorities are making an effort to control the drug trade, but the U.S. also says limited resources and corruption curb the effectiveness of the campaign.

UKRAINE - In Ukraine, the U.S. says both drug trafficking and drug use increased last year. Ukraine has sought to live up to its international obligations, but the U.S. says a lack of funding for law enforcement and a lack of cooperation among Ukrainian anti-drug agencies have severely constrained Ukraine's efforts to fight drugs.

UZBEKISTAN - According to the U.S., Uzbekistan is an important shipping route for Asian drugs. The U.S. report says that, while the government continues to profess its commitment to fight drugs, "it made virtually no progress on counternarcotics legislation or a counternarcotics master plan in 1997."