Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, May 17, 2013

Cooperation and Geopolitics in the Central Asian Drug Trade

One of the greatest challenges to security and stability in Central Eurasia is that the otherwise cash-strapped nations of Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Tajikistan, have been sources of large amounts of drugs, specifically heroin, to the Russia and Europe. Entry to these markets is not particularly difficult with porous borders and no shortage of willing customers with disposable cash. The problem of drug addiction has become particularly widespread in Russia, yet despite the increase in drugs and drug addicts in the country, the geopolitical implications of cooperation with the United States seem to trump Russia’s willingness to cooperate with Western nations to counter the drug trade in the region.

The majority of drugs entering Russia come from Afghanistan, via routes through the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan. Russia is experiencing a major increase in drug use, with a staggering 8.5 million Russian citizens struggling with drug addiction. In 2012 eighty-eight thousand citizens were arrested on drug charges and 85 tons of drugs were seized by law enforcement in Russia. That same year, Tajik officials prevented at least 20 illegal border crossings by suspected drug traffickers from Afghanistan, and seized nearly six tons of drugs; they have acknowledged that this large volume is not simply the result of greater success on the part of Tajik drug enforcement officers, but also due to the increase volume of drugs grown in, or passing through, Tajikistan. Overall, organized crime groups use the porous Afghan-Tajik border to smuggle 100 tons of heroin into Russia and Europe annually.

In early 2013, Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia’s FSKN, warned that Afghan land under cultivation for opiates rose in 2012 from 131,000 hectares to 154,000 hectares, and that he expected an even larger increase after U.S. and allied troops pulled out of Afghanistan in 2014.

The United States has offered to assist with the creation of a counter-narcotics center in Central Asia, but this was declined by Russian officials due to wariness of strengthening America's presence in the region. Recently the FSB decided to curtail its cooperation with U.S. law enforcement, specifically with the FBI, on matters of counter-narcotics. While a new agreement is currently being developed between the DEA and its Russian counterpart, the FSKN, to work in closer cooperation on drug enforcement, Russia has also been looking for new international partners in combating the Central Asian drug trade, specifically Iran. Viktor Ivanov met with officials from Iran’s Interior Ministry in late 2011 to discuss further cooperation. While the choice of Iran may be logical because of its shared border with Afghanistan and the fact that it shares (to a large extent) a common language with large sectors of the Afghan and Tajik population, the Iran-Russia initiative may be part of an effort to counter American influence in the region.

The U.S. has already given Tajikistan’s border security services money to finance the construction of new border checkpoints, which has received praise from Tajik border troop commander Sherali Mirzo. The security services of all five former Soviet Central Asian republics, in fact, receive extensive funding from the United States, with an official reporting of 4.2 million dollars from the U.S. State Department going to Central Asian counter-narcotics initiatives, partially with the intention, according to some, of helping the U.S. gain the upper hand in Central Asia vis-à-vis Russia. According to Nurali Bibisbekov, head of the economic security section of Kazakhstan’s Committee on National Security, there has, in fact, been effective cooperation on counter-narcotics between agencies from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uzbekistan.

On a regional level, Tajik officials have begun reaching out to their Afghan counterparts in offering counter-narcotics training (which, according to one Afghan official, was more practical and effective than similar training he had received in Europe and Turkey) and have met with officials from Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee to discuss the narcotics trade in Central Asia and ways to increase inter-agency cooperation- concern over the increase in production and sale of opiates from Afghanistan led to “several concrete resolutions” being taken by the Kazakh and Tajik sides to help stem the problem.

Geopolitical concerns are the greatest hindrance to Russia being able to tackle the problem. Nevertheless, despite the geopolitical undertones of Russia’s reaction to the Central Asian drug trade, it is not NATO’s responsibility to deal with drug problems in the region, but rather is the responsibility of the individual states in question, said the director of NATO’s informational bureau in Russia, Robert Pszczel, during a conference on greater cooperation between NATO, the EU and Russia. He has advocated greater interoperability between NATO and Russian authorities, but that the flow of drugs into Russia is, at the end of the day, a Russian problem.

In response to the inflow of drugs, there have been calls for a tighter visa regime in Russia against nationals from Central Asian states. Civil activists have placed particular blame on Tajik nationals for facilitating the influx of drugs into the country. Discussions are underway between Russia and Tajikistan regarding the possible activation of Russian troops along the Tajik border to help stem the flow of drugs; right now there is a limited Russian officer cadre stationed in Tajikistan, but they are limited to providing advice and consultations for their Tajik colleagues.  Russian troops were stationed in Tajikistan until 2005 as part of the aftermath of the Tajik Civil War from 1992-1997. Yet it’s possible that this Russian military presence (similar to accusations leveled against Russia in light of its military presence in Transdniestria and breakaway parts of Georgia) may be nothing more than a veiled attempt to increase its strength in the region, especially with coalition troops due to leave Afghanistan next year.

Another, albeit much softer initiative undertaken by Russia to stem the flow of drugs from Central Asia is the proposed creation of an open joint-stock company in the hydropower industry, which will, the theory goes, create jobs and thus distract young people from involvement in drug usage, etc. When asked during an interview with Russia’s Kommersant daily, Viktor Ivanov seemed to give rather flimsy answers to questions such as “Shouldn’t the Russian government try to focus on creating jobs for young Russian addicts?”, simply brushing off certain domestic initiatives as either not being cost effective or unworkable. It seems the real reason for his dismissive response is because Moscow likely wants to increase not only Russia’s espoused counter-narcotic thrust into Central Asia, but, as with the case of a hydropower company, strengthen Russia’s grip on key industry assets in the region (this could especially be the case with Uzbekistan, through which the Amu Darya and Syr Darya flow, generating much hydroelectric power).

Regardless of Russia’s intentions, it is in the best interests of Russia and the United States, as well as China, the EU and other states privy to the problems of the Central Asian drug trade, to work more closely to tackle this problem. Drug usage itself has, and continues to be, a threat to the social stability of the countries beset by widespread consumption, and the revenue generated from drug sales is often used to finance terrorist activity. Much as with who has access to energy, however, the question of who has the right to intervene in counternarcotics initiatives runs the risk of becoming the subject of geopolitical wrangling as well, which poses a serious risk to regional and even global security as a whole.

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