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Central Asia: Charges Link Russian Military To Drug Trade

Drug trafficking from war-torn Afghanistan through the former Soviet Union has dramatically increased over the past 20 years. UN-sponsored regional programs have so far been unable to stem the growth of narcotics-smuggling to Western Europe through Russia and the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. A major factor in the huge expansion of the Afghan drug trade may be the alleged involvement of some of the Russian military stationed in Tajikistan. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reviews the evidence in light of new accusations recently made by a former Russian military intelligence officer.

Prague, 8 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has emerged as a major international drug trafficking route linking some of the world's largest illicit opium producers to the most lucrative markets of Western Europe. Analyst say the amount of drugs moving along the ancient Silk Road has become a major threat to the entire region, and beyond.

Figures published last year by the United Nations Drug Control Program, or UNDCP, show that 80 percent of the heroin consumed in Western Europe originated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that one-half of these drugs traveled there through Central Asia.

The UNDCP estimated that in Afghanistan, some 91,000 hectares of opium poppy were cultivated in 1999. This represented an increase of more than 40 percent compared to the previous year.

But last summer, Taliban leader Mullah Omar officially banned opium poppy cultivation in all areas controlled by the militia. UNDCP officials who recently visited Afghanistan say that the Taliban prohibition is nearly total, while opium poppies continue to grow in territory controlled by the Northern Alliance opposition forces.

The region's drug trade, however, continues to flourish. Geography, porous borders, organizational chaos, local conflicts, and wide-scale corruption are among the main factors that have contributed to the explosion of drug trafficking. The trafficking, in turn, has helped criminalize Central Asian economies.

Some regional experts also believe that the presence of a large Russian military presence in the area has played a significant role in the spread of illicit drug trafficking.

In a report published in March 2000, the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank cited allegations about Russian soldiers headquartered in the Tajik capital Dushanbe or deployed along the 1,200-km-long Tajik-Afghan border. Carnegie researchers Martha Olcott and Natalia Udalova said that Russian soldiers were suspected of helping drug traffickers by providing them with transport facilities.

Yesterday Olcott told our correspondent that as long ago as two years ago she heard stories implicating the Russian military in the regional drug trade when she attended an international seminar in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

"We got plenty of hints [then] that the Russian military could be involved. But people were not willing to address the issue of whether this was with the overt participation of senior military officials in place or with the covert participation of them. There is no question in my mind that part of the Russian military has been a corrupting influence in Central Asia from the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Part of the Russian military has been engaged in the illegal sale of their own weapons. And part of the Russian military seems to have actively facilitated the sale of drugs."

In an interview published last week (dated 29 May) in the "Moscow News" ("Moskovskie Novosti") weekly, former Russian military intelligence officer Anton Surikov charged that a substantial portion of the drugs produced in Afghanistan had been directly shipped from the Tajik capital Dushanbe on board Russian military planes, helicopters, and trains.

Surikov said: "You can come to an arrangement [with custom officials] so that the search of military transport planes remains purely formal. The same goes for train convoys carrying military cargo [to Russia from Tajikistan]."

According to his account, Afghan opium producers usually sold drugs to Tajik citizens who smuggled them into Tajikistan with the active complicity of Russian border guards. The drugs were then put on board military planes or trains en route to Russia, where they were sold to local criminal gangs.

Surikov, who now is an aide to the chairman of the Duma's committee on industrial policy, said he was posted to Tajikistan in 1993 after the start of the civil war that brought President Imomali Rakhmonov to power. He estimated the number of senior Russian officers involved in the Afghan drug trade to have been between 50 and 100.

In the past, similar allegations against Russian officers serving in Tajikistan have appeared in both Russian and Western media. But Surikov is the first former officer -- and the first official, either military or civilian -- to publicly charge collusion between some Russian high military officers and Afghan drug traders.

What prompted Surikov to talk to the press now is unclear.

"Moscow News" correspondent Sanobar Shermatova specializes in Central Asian affairs. Shermatova told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that she had met in the past with a number of Russian officers, who privately confirmed that some of their peers had been actively involved in the Afghan drug trade.

Shermatova says that even though the Russian high command is aware of the situation, it has failed to do anything to prevent corrupt officers from illegally shipping drugs to Russia.

"For me, it has always been an enigma. How could you explain that neither the Defense Ministry nor any other official body has ever taken any measure when they have very detailed information on what is going on along the [Tajik-]Afghan border?" UNDCP officials told our correspondent that they were not aware of any possible Russian involvement in the Afghan drug trade and that they could therefore "neither confirm nor deny" Surikov's accusations.

In Moscow, Russian authorities have not reacted to Surikov's charges. But a spokesman for the Russian border guards stationed in Tajikistan dismissed the accusations as "groundless."

At the same time, a high-ranking Tajik official has added fuel to the controversy by saying that both Russians and Tajiks control drug transportation routes to Western Europe. In an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, the deputy head of Tajikistan's UN-sponsored Drug Control Agency, Sheravliyo Mirzoavliyoyev said:

"In the course of the emergency actions that we have conducted, many drug traffickers have been caught. Among them are not only Tajik citizens, but also citizens of other countries -- notably, citizens of Russia -- Russian border guards, Tajik border guards, police officials, and government officials."

In a debate broadcast on state television earlier this year (1 February), Tajik officials admitted that an unspecified number of officers of the Interior Ministry, the Customs Office, and even the Drug Control Agency had been arrested on charges of complicity with drug smugglers. The debate followed a Tajik government Security Council meeting, during which Rakhmonov reportedly criticized his law-enforcement agencies for failing to fight drug trafficking effectively.

Four months ago, the chairman of the Tajik state committee on border protection, Saidanvar Kamolov, said that law-enforcement agencies and border guards seized only one-tenth of the drugs smuggled across the Tajik-Afghan border last year.

UNDCP figures show that in recent years the five CIS Central Asian states together were responsible for only 15 percent of all regional seizures of Afghan drugs, while neighboring Iran made more than half (55 percent) of the seizures.

The five-year civil war (1992-97) in Tajikistan, one of the poorest former Soviet republics, contributed substantially to the explosion of the drug trade in Central Asia, with both warring sides turning to trafficking to finance their military campaigns.

The start of large-scale drug smuggling in the Central Asia region goes back to the early 1980s, when Soviet soldiers fighting in Afghanistan first established business relations with local heroin producers. In 1996, when the militantly Islamic Taliban wrested control of most of Afghanistan's territory from forces loyal to President Burhanuddin Rabbani, it inherited some efficient drug-production facilities and illegal trade routes.

In the early years of its rule, out of religious conviction, the Taliban banned the use of drugs by Afghans. But the militia permitted the export of drugs and taxed the annual opium harvest. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who closely follows Taliban affairs, estimates that its revenues from taxes on opium trade have been at least $20 million a year.

With an opium output of 3,000 to 4,600 tons annually, Afghanistan had accounted for an estimated three-fourths of the world's heroin supply. But now the UNDCP believes Afghanistan will no longer be a major player in the global drug trade.

Some analysts are skeptical of the UNDCP's conclusions. They argue that the recent end of opium-poppy cultivation could simply be the result of the serious drought that hit the country last year. Others suggest that it may also be an attempt by the Taliban to artificially drive up the price of heroin.

Surikov says that in the past, 90 percent of the 300 to 460 tons of heroin produced annually in Afghanistan -- and funneled to Western markets with the help of the Russian military -- came from Taliban-controlled territory. As for heroin and other opium-poppy by-products that originated in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, Surikov says they reached Western markets "through different channels."

Carnegie Endowment analyst Olcott believes it would be a mistake to see drug traffickers as tied to one group or another. She says: "I would try to see these [drug traders] as neutral because they will deal with whatever regime is in place in Afghanistan. This is a business that the civil war in Afghanistan helped promote, not the other way [around]."