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Drug trafficking in the Caucasus, CU Issue 23, February 23, 2009

On February 19, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released its annual report, in which it expresses concern that a lack of co-ordinated activity among actors – both inside and outside Afghanistan – was undermining efforts to staunch the flow of opium. The warning is timely: at the end of January the German weekly Der Spiegel reported that a directive by NATO commander John Craddock to eliminate opium dealers, regardless of their links to the Taleban insurgency, had caused divisions within NATO.

Whilst conflicting and contradictory approaches continue to be implemented in Afghanistan itself, the Eurasian transit states are key to stemming the narcotic tide. The INCB report urges the Central Asian states to increase co-operation and to include other regional states in the developing Central Asia Regional Information and Coordination Centre. In particular, Iran should be included in the program. Tehran’s commitment to combating drug traffickers – 10 smugglers were killed by border security forces in early February – makes it one of the few areas where its interests overlap with those of its Western antagonists. Furthermore, Iran has the resources and the will to actively fight trafficking, unlike the Central Asian states, which are so plagued with poverty, corruption and poor security that traffickers have very little difficulty penetrating them.

Despite the active efforts of Iranian security forces, the westward route through Iran is still significant. Part of the reason for this may be the attraction of the next stage in the route – the Caucasus. The INCB report states that the Caucasian states are ‘increasingly being used as trans-shipment areas for illicit consignments of drugs’, a process aided by the region’s poverty, divisions and mountainous terrain. There are a number of smuggling routes which cross the Caucasus. Two branches run from Iran to Azerbaijan and Armenia, and from there to Russia (via Georgia) or Europe via Turkey; a third route crosses the Caspian from Turkmenistan and transits Azerbaijan, whilst a fourth crosses through the mountainous Kurdish areas of northern Iran and south-eastern Turkey. The size of recent seizures undertaken by Azerbaijani authorities along the Iran-Azerbaijan route – 231kg in late December 2008, 40kg on February 13 – indicates the scale of the issue, especially since interdiction rates probably only reflect a small fraction of the total volume being smuggled.

There are three key problems that the narcotics trade poses to the South Caucasus. Firstly, the problem of consumption. Drug abuse within the region, and the associated problem of HIV, is fairly low, but statistics indicate that it is growing. In Armenia, for instance, HIV rates grew almost fivefold between 2000 and 2007, according to a 2008 report by the EU-funded South Caucasus Anti-Drug Programme. The report also makes it clear that the country’s statistics on drugs are poor and outdated, and thus probably hiding the full extent of the problem, a shortcoming also present in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Higher drug addiction rates are associated with unemployment, poverty, crime and early mortality, as well as a huge strain on health services. Iran’s massive number of addicts, estimated to be as high as four million, is a clear warning.

Secondly, there is the shadowy nexus between drug gangs, organised criminals, terrorists and extremists. The nature and the extent of these linkages are, by their nature, hidden. But quite aside from the close relationship of the Taleban and the opium trade, evidence indicates that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant network, is funded largely by drug trafficking. Similar claims have been made about the separatist leadership of South Ossetia and the Kurdish PKK movement. But once again, getting to the truth of such accusations is difficult. Declaring that one’s enemies are funded by such an unpleasant trade is an easy claim to make. All that can be said for sure is that, in the ungoverned spaces of Eurasia, these claims are plausible.

It is these ungoverned spaces which constitute the third problem. Political accusations aside, most experts agree that drugs – along with trafficking in arms, people, and more mundane contraband – have helped to prop up and maintain the separatist enclaves of the Caucasus for years. Smugglers and criminal gangs, many with links to the de facto authorities, have no interest in seeing a resolution of the conflicts. A cycle of dependency emerges: drugs support the ‘state’, and the ‘state’ exists to process drugs. South Ossetia and Abkhazia were almost entirely supported by smuggling, and the ‘Karabakh mafia’ are alleged to dominate politics and business in the enclave. They have no desire to open up the territory and allow international observers and police to begin poking around.

The South Caucasian states are not, to be clear, ‘plagued’ by drug problems. HIV and addiction rates remain far lower than in Iran, and although narcotics are inevitably included in any list of the ‘soft’ security threats facing the region (along with terrorism, weapons proliferation, etc), there is no indication that the drug trade constitutes as much of a danger as terrorism, particularly in Azerbaijan. Nor have they eroded away much of the central state, as in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Instead, narcotics trafficking should be viewed as part of the fabric of insecurity facing the region, a steady pressure which requires constant attention. Until the situation in Afghanistan improves, and the coalition forces there can decide and act upon a coherent opium strategy, the states of Eurasia will continue to struggle against the endless flow of drugs.

"Drug trafficking in the Caucasus, CU Issue 23, February 23, 2009" | 1 comment | Search Discussion
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by KNT on Wed Feb 25, 2009 1:44 am
A well-written introductory article on drug trafficking problem in Central Asia/Caucasus. Contains some inaccurate assessments, though.

"Tehran’s commitment to combating drug traffickers – 10 smugglers were killed by border security forces in early February – makes it one of the few areas where its interests overlap with those of its Western antagonists."

This is a joke: Iranian state authorities are heavily interested in keeping the masses of prospective protesters drugged-up. In a country where one gets arrested for not being properly clothed, it must be easy for the police to spot thousands of young men who cook their fix right there on the curbside.


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