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UN: Report Focuses Concern On Central Asian Drug-Smuggling Route

By Nikola Krastev/Antoine Blua

The independent United Nations body that monitors the global drug situation says in a new report that the illicit drug trade keeps many people in developing countries trapped in poverty while destroying the fabric of society. Central Asia -- Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan -- is not listed as a major drug-producing region but is cited in the report as a key route for smuggling opiates from Afghanistan to Europe.

United Nations, 28 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board -- an independent UN body that monitors the global drug situation -- calls the idea that countries grow rich through the production of illegal drugs a dangerous myth.

In its latest annual report released this week, the board -- or INCB -- says the overwhelming share of profits from illicit drugs is made from distribution in developed countries. INCB Board President Philip Emafo says only 1 percent of the money ultimately spent by drug consumers is earned as farm income in developing countries.

"Ninety-nine percent of the earnings from the illicit drug trade ends along the trafficking chain by drug trafficking groups. The bulk of the profits from illicit drug traffic is outside countries where drugs are illicitly cultivated and manufactured," Emafo says.

Herbert Schaepe -- secretary of the board of the INCB -- admits that in the short term, the production and trade of illegal drugs provide employment opportunities. But he says these benefits are offset by significant long-term losses: "In all the countries where [illicit-drug cultivation and trafficking] has taken place, in the [medium]term and in the long run, this is producing a lot of negative consequences not only for the economy but for the entire political and social system."

The report points to Afghanistan -- where massive increases in opium production in the early 1990s helped to fuel civil wars and degraded living standards -- as a typical example of the negative side effects of drug production. However, in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, where poppy production was significantly reduced, economic growth proved positive and more sustainable, the report says.

As more effective law enforcement has been introduced across the Balkans, the main routes for smuggling have partly shifted to Central Asia, Schaepe says, along with a host of unwanted side effects.

In the long term, he stresses, the cultivation and trade of illicit drugs led to an increase in violent crime, scared off foreign investors, and prevented long-term economic growth. On top of that, the drug economy undermines political stability by weakening the political system through corruption.

Partly due to more effective interdiction methods, the volume of drugs seized in Central Asia continues to increase, reaching 10.5 tons in 2001, more than 80 percent of which was seized in Tajikistan.

Peter Reuter is a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a consultant at the RAND think tank. He notes that the huge proportion of drugs seized in Tajikistan is at least partly due to its geographic location between Afghanistan and Russia: "Tajikistan appears to have the best connections to both Afghanistan and to Russia, which is the principal destination of Central Asian heroin. So the large seizures, the relatively large seizures in Tajikistan, probably represent the much higher volume that goes through Tajikistan as compared to either of the neighboring countries."

Alex Brideau is an expert in drug trafficking at Eurasia Group, a New York-based think tank. He says that the Central Asian states, and Tajikistan in particular, have been concerned not only about drug traffickers but also about the penetration of terrorists from Afghanistan: "[We've seen] major increase in border security along the Tajik border. Certain areas that were quite porous prior to September 11 have become much more heavily guarded. Also, there are other things that Russian border patrols and Tajik border patrols have been looking for. A lot of the Central Asian countries are concerned about terrorist groups operating between Afghanistan and Central Asia, and there's been a lot of pressure on Tajikistan to increase border patrols in that sense, as well."

The report says that no laboratories used for illicit drug manufacturing have been detected in Central Asia. But the INCB stresses the need for tightened precursor control: "We so far do not have indications that drug production is taking place [in Central Asia]. There might be here and there exceptionally some heroin laboratories, but the opiates are coming from Afghanistan. But there is also another trafficking route towards Afghanistan. Heroin production cannot take place without chemicals. And these chemicals have to get into Afghanistan. One route is probably the route though Central Asia, and the other route probably through Pakistan."

Uzbekistan is the only country in Central Asia participating in Operation Topaz, under which international trade in acetic anhydride, the key chemical used in the manufacture of heroin, is monitored. Reuter from RAND says authorities in Tashkent are taking the drug-trafficking issue seriously.

"Uzbekistan is concerned about this and clearly, of course, there's a lot of corruption in Uzbekistan. But there's nothing to suggest that the central government is systematically profiting from this. And the signals, so to speak, internally are that this should be taken seriously. They have put substantial resources on the short border with Afghanistan. The Uzbek government is more committed to controlling drug traffic than either of the other two [Kazakhstan and Tajikistan]," Reuter says.

The INBC urges the other Central Asian countries -- notably Kazakhstan, a manufacturer of acetic anhydride -- to coordinate measures to prevent chemicals from being used in drug manufacture, mainly in Afghanistan.

Schaepe notes with concern that Turkmen authorities have not reported any seizures of opiates since 2000, although significant quantities had been seized in previous years. The INCB is calling on the Turkmen government to improve its data collection and reporting mechanisms, and to share its data with international organizations and governments.

RAND's Reuter points to the secretiveness of the Turkmen government not only with respect to drug seizures but in regard to almost any statistical data: "The Turkmen border is quite broad, but the level of systemic corruption seems to be so high that there are very [few] seizures, or if they seize anything, they hardly say anything about it. The government of Turkmenistan is very secretive about drugs, as about everything else. I looked at a lot of international statistics, and what strikes me is how little comes out of Turkmenistan by way of information."

It is clear that the problem of drug trafficking must remain at the top of the agenda of regional security consultations in Central Asia. Yet despite the notable progress in curbing drug trafficking in Central Asia, some experts remain skeptical of the whole process.

Michael Lyman is a professor of criminal justice at Columbia College of Missouri, author of the new book "Drugs in Society" and an expert on international drug trafficking. He says that support for drug controls in Central Asia appears to be mostly politically motivated.

"Governments in these unstable Third World countries will support drug initiatives only on a political basis. In other words, are they really interested in doing away with the drug problem in their country, or are they only interested in doing away with the drug problem as the United States sees their role in the drug problem? In other words, to appease the United States," Lyman says.

The INCB welcomes the launch in the first six months of 2003 of multiple regional initiatives to promote cooperation in sharing information, providing technical assistance and countering drug smuggling. The INCB also welcomes various new accords on drug control between countries, such as the bilateral agreements between Iran and Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.