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Central Asia: Russia Urges Cooperation In Fight Against Drug Trafficking

Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov is in Tajikistan today to meet with officials there. Gryzlov arrived from Kyrgyzstan where he discussed the fight against narcotics trafficking with officials. The subject is getting more attention recently now that the campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan has become a low-level conflict. RFE/RL looks at the fight against narcotics trafficking in Central Asia and what officials there are doing to stem the flow of drugs coming out of Afghanistan and heading for Europe and North America.

Prague, 15 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov is in the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan this week. Gryzlov's purpose is in part to help organize a united front against the region's biggest problem: drug trafficking.

Gryzlov is only the latest official to travel to Central Asia to call for a greater effort in fighting this problem, which stems from Central Asia but whose effect is felt worldwide.

In his meeting with Kyrgyz Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov yesterday, Gryzlov suggested that a "belt of security" be established along the southern rim of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to prevent illegal narcotics from entering from Afghanistan.

Gryzlov admitted it would be expensive to create such a security network to fight narcotics trafficking and proposed that governments in the West, whose populations are affected by drugs from Afghanistan, should foot some of the bill for helping secure CIS borders against drug traffickers.

For now, Gryzlov said it was necessary for Russia to act with some of the countries in Central Asia to stem the flow of drugs from Afghanistan. Gryzlov pointed to a collaborative antinarcotics operation in June that netted some 2 tons of illegal narcotics as an example of what could be done without outside help. Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all participated in the operation.

Gryzlov also signed an agreement with Kyrgyzstan on the issue: "There were negotiations between the Russian delegation and Kyrgyz officials and we signed a memorandum that reflects the practical measures for our work together in areas such as the fight against terrorism and illegal drug trafficking."

The problem of narcotics trafficking is not new in Central Asia, and Gryzlov is not the only official to bring the subject up in recent talks with Central Asian government authorities.

During last month's visit by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the region, the fight against illegal narcotics was also a top subject for discussion. Annan said drugs were a major problem and warned of the effect narcotics could have on future generations.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, whose country is a key player in the international coalition against terrorism, said there should also be an international coalition against narcotics.

Tajik Deputy Foreign Minister Salohiddin Nasriddinov explained how the year-long antiterror campaign in Afghanistan has affected narcotics smuggling in the region: "Over the same time [as the campaign against terrorism] we see that the amount of narcotics being transported from Afghanistan through the neighboring countries and on to Europe and the United States is growing. This is because over the year the international community has been fighting terrorism, they have forgotten that up until now the drug business has been one of the main occupations of the people of Afghanistan."

Russian border guards, who represent the first line of defense along Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, reported yesterday that in the first 10 months of this year they confiscated 2,420 kilograms of narcotics, more than half of which (1,650 kilograms) was heroin.

On the other side of the border, Afghan border-guard commander Sameulloh Qatra said his troops are outmatched technologically by the narcotics traffickers: "We do not have such equipment as they [the drug traffickers] have to completely prevent the smuggling of narcotics. We do not have the capability to contain these smugglers."

Qatra said his forces have taken hundreds of people into custody during the last year but that the amount of narcotics being produced and transported is still growing.

The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention estimates that Afghanistan produces 75 percent of the world's opium. And despite poppy-eradication programs conducted jointly earlier this year by the Afghan government and foreign agencies, the UN says Afghan poppy fields this year are expected to yield between 1,900 and 2,700 tons of opium. That level of cultivation is equal to the production levels reached in Afghanistan during the mid-1990s.

Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said care needs to be exercised in waging a war on narcotics: "I hope no one is thinking of waging a war against poor peasants who are growing opium poppy or poor people who are smuggling drugs, though of course, if they are caught they would be arrested. Really, I would say the law enforcement efforts have to concentrate on the middle-level and upper-level trafficking. And there should be efforts aimed at the demand for the drugs too. Because obviously, if there weren't such a high demand then it wouldn't be so valuable."

Rubin pointed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent dismissal of officials because of their alleged connections to narcotics trafficking as a model for other countries.

Sheravliyo Mirzoavliyoev is the first deputy chief of the Drug Control Center under the leadership of Tajik President Rakhmonov. He says Tajikistan has arrested and imprisoned government officials in the country's fight against narcotics. Mirzoavliyoev also says Tajikistan has been coordinating its antinarcotics operations with the governments of other countries, just as Gryzlov recommended in Kyrgyzstan on 13 November: "Our agency, under the control of the president, has been fulfilling these responsibilities. During this year we have signed agreements with Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Turkey, India, and especially with Germany, and with other countries we have improved cooperation."

Mirzoavliyoev said Tajikistan and Germany conducted a joint operation that netted 140 kilograms of narcotics and led to the arrest of 22 people involved in the illegal trade.

There is no quick solution to the narcotics problem in Central Asia. As Rubin noted, the majority of the population in the region is poor and the lure of large amounts of money from the sales of illegal narcotics will remain a great temptation until the social conditions are improved.

(Iskander Aliyev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Naryn Indinov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)