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Tajikistan: Heroin Busts Tie Russian Military To Drug Trade

For years, the Russian military has patrolled the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, one of the world's major drug-smuggling routes. Recently the troops' main job has been to stem the flow of Afghan heroin that is smuggled across the border on its way to Russia and Western markets. Now the reported arrests of two Russian border guards with heroin has once again raised questions about the involvement of the Russian military -- at a time when Tajikistan is looking to gradually assume command of the border service.

Prague, 7 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It was yet another arrest in Tajikistan's drug war.

Authorities announced on 5 May they had detained a man near the border with Afghanistan carrying 12 kilograms of heroin.

It's not just the large amount of heroin that made his arrest noteworthy.

"We've seen evidence that the Russian military, and at a high level, has been involved in the Central Asian drug trade."
Police said the suspect, Safarali Gulomov, is a Tajik with Russian citizenship and a medic with the Russian border guard service -- the more than 10,000-strong force that for over a decade has helped locals fight drug smuggling from Afghanistan.

Faizulloh Gadoev is chief of the Interior Ministry's antidrug department. He confirmed the arrest in a phone interview with RFE/RL's Mirzonabi Kholikzod in Dushanbe -- and noted it's the second time in two weeks Russian border guards have been implicated in the drug trade.

"There were other such incidents last year, too, though I can't remember the exact numbers,” he said. “A week or 10 days ago we detained another border guard with some 10 kilos [of drugs]."

Last year, two Russian soldiers were jailed for heroin possession. In 1997, 12 were arrested after trying to transport eight kilos of drugs by plane to Russia.

And three years ago, a former Russian military intelligence officer said such shipments were common practice -- and that up to 100 senior officers were involved in the drug trade.

Niklas Swanstrom heads the program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies at Sweden's Uppsala University.

"We've seen evidence that the Russian military, and at a high level, has been involved in the Central Asian drug trade, if not by any other factor [than] by the size of this transport from Central Asia through Russia or the former Soviet Union," he said. "It can only be transported by trucks, private planes, or military aircraft -- and military aircraft seems to be a big factor in this. And that can only be organized by senior officers."

That's roundly denied by the border service. The head of its press service, Colonel Aleksandr Kondratyev, denied any widespread involvement of Russian border guards in drug trafficking. And in a phone interview with RFE/RL's Kholikzod, he also cast doubt on the first of the two recent arrests, saying the man named by police, Artyom Kovalyev, was not even in the service.

The border guards also say they are doing a lot to help stem the cross-border drug flow. They, along with Tajik authorities, have seized more than 30 tons of drugs -- including 16 tons of heroin -- in the past five years, according to the Tajik Drug Control Agency.

Seizures have soared each year. Last year, authorities confiscated 9.5 tons of drugs -- 10 times as much as in 1999. But still, drug control experts estimate that's just a tiny percentage of what gets through.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says the "Silk route" -- from Afghanistan through Central Asia to the West -- now appears to be the main drug-trafficking route to Europe.

In its most recent report, the body said some 4,500 metric tons of opium were produced in 2002 -- and three-quarters of it was made in Afghanistan.

James Callahan is the organization's Central Asia representative. He says there are obvious temptations -- and not just for Russian border guards. But he says the cases of drug smuggling in the Russian military are probably isolated incidents.

"It is quite costly for the [Russian] government [to maintain the border force in Tajikistan]," he said. "And I don't think that if the Russian government felt it actually had a force there that was -- at the highest levels, or at very high levels -- involved in the trade itself, that they would continue to invest in this. I've met the leadership of the Russian border guards and others and they seem very professional. I think when you're talking about the kinds of salaries that people are paid -- although they're better in the Russian border guards than in the Tajik border guards -- and the temptations for the trade, as well as the ethnic ties across the border, you will inevitably have people who are in positions in the law enforcement area that will be tempted to do this."

Those temptations -- for the Russian military at least -- will soon be removed. Over the coming months, Russian border guards are to be phased out.

(Farangiz Najibullah and Mirzonabi Kholikzod of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)