On July 3, the head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service (RSKN), Viktor Ivanov announced plans to create an anti-drug operations center through the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The proposed plan to fight drug trafficking in Afghanistan and Central Asia called for the establishment of national headquarters in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Much of the details are still the be finalized, but Deputy Secretary General of the CSTO, Gennady Bevyglas has said that the idea has been generally agreed to by the CSTO.
Just a few days later, on July 5, the heads of the police services of over 100 countries convened in Moscow at the 30th International Drug Enforcement Conference. Here, the issue of drug trafficking in Central Asia was once again securitized, as major regional and international actors expressed their concerns about the state of the region after the planned NATO pullout in 2014.
In many ways, this is encouraging news. Drug trafficking is a complex and devastating security threat that can affect economies, social structures and political stability. These threats are particularly acute in Central Asia, where the region’s geographical proximity to Afghanistan and its key role in controlling the northbound transit of opiates to Europe and Russia have made it particularly susceptible to the effects of the drug trade.
At a global level, roughly 30 percent of illicit Afghan opiates use the northern route via Central Asia to Russia, with about 60 percent of this total being consumed in Russia alone. Most drugs, primarily opiates, are brought from Afghan labs to Tajikistan and then into southern Kyrgyzstan, with the city of Osh now being dubbed Central Asia’s drug capital. Uzbekistan also receives opiates trafficked from Tajikistan, which then move on to Kazakhstan and Russia, whereas Turkmenistan has developed has part of the Balkan route. However, Kyrgyzstan remains the preferred route for opiates given the country’s current situation of instability and the ease of crossing into the mostly uncontrolled southern border with Tajikistan.
The states of Central Asia cannot fight the problem alone. For the most part, they are limited in their abilities to allocate funds, to train personnel, and to build responsive policies. Consequently, oversight from security blocs like the CSTO are a must. However, these initiatives have been doomed from the start due to narrow approaches in addressing drug trafficking, state level corruption and underlying geopolitical competition. As such, its difficult to be optimistic when it comes to rhetoric from Moscow, Washington or any other capital about the war on drugs in Central Asia.
Framing the Problem
Anti-drug trafficking strategy has not changed much since the 2000s, with the majority of assistance going towards law enforcement and material assistance, but this strategy is incomplete and has consequently failed to achieve results. For instance, heroin seizures in Tajikistan fell from 4,794 kilograms in 2004, to only 1,132 kilograms in 2009. Even as production increased in Afghanistan and the use of the northern route became more prevalent, seizures still decreased drastically. Furthermore, this strategy has tended to view drug trafficking as chiefly a problem of spillover from Afghanistan, which has limited its scope to classic mechanisms of border security.
Moreover, the official narrative of Central Asian governments, and echoed by all regional structures, is that terrorism and narcotics are intrinsically linked. In Central Asia, this assumption has been legitimized by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s well-documented involvement in drug trafficking in its incursions into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan during 1999 and 2000. The linkage between terrorism and drugs in Afghanistan remains based on a very simplistic reading of the Afghan situation. This framing says nothing about the role of criminalized structures with political connections in high places. In Central Asia, all border points, even those that the international community has best equipped, are open borders, as corruption has rendered them permeable.
The State-Crime Nexus
This, of course, leads to the second main problem, the strong links between organized crime and political actors. National drug fighting agencies in Central Asia tend to target the low-level aspects of the drug trade and leave the high-level, connected traffickers to continue unabated. On the rare occasions when high up traffickers are captured, it usually reflects the settling of scores between elites who are out to have a political or commercial rival disposed. In Tajikistan, the fact that members of the presidential family are at the head of national drug enforcement agency confirms the inherently political nature of these institutions. The same can be said for Kyrgyzstan, where under former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, his relatives headed to Drug Control Agency (DCA), until it was completely shut down by Bakiyev in 2009.
Yet, despite this overlap between crime and state institutions, little has been done to address it. One reason has been that external actors have accepted the narrative of Central Asian governments on jointly fighting terrorism and drug trafficking. It is easier for Central Asian governments to secure outside support by emphasizing the risk of terrorism and presenting themselves as victims, weakened by “spillover” from Afghanistan. This diverts attention from their own responsibility for the drug trade and indirectly helps legitimize domestic policies of repression and rent-seeking. Without directly targeting corruption itself, anti-drug trafficking policies have been effectively neutered, as the drug trade has continued to grow and become a part of the political process.
The Geopolitics of Drug Policy
When it comes to combating drug trafficking, another factor that has stalled progress has been the excessive politicization of drug policy in the region . Back in 2011, the US State Department revealed the Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative (CACI), its plan to contain traffickers in the region. The US plan would seek to establish a network of anti-trafficking experts to share information among interested states and make counternarcotics operations more efficient and effective. However, the plan failed to be adopted after reports surfaced that Russia had placed pressure on Central Asian states to reject CACI. As reported by EurasiaNet, Kremlin policymakers were apparently letting suspicion of the US get in the way of a cooperating on a response, as Russia was worried that CACI would give the US too much of a regional footprint after 2014.
Moreover, several other organizations have a footing on the Central Asian anti-drug landscape. The United Nations Organization for Drug Control (UNODC) has traditionally had a strong presence in the region and wants to strengthen its role in Central Asia in the future. The European Union will continue to finance the Border Management in Central Asia (BOMCA) program; and as stated earlier, Russia wants to assume the head of a new international anti-drug campaign through the CSTO–if possible in cooperation with NATO.
Russia has hinted at working with NATO in the past, so long as Moscow remained at the helm. Within this proposed plan, NATO would go directly after production by destroying poppy fields and laboratories. However, NATO has refused to accede to Russian demands on the pretext that it would be necessary to provide Afghan farmers alternative sources of revenue or risk worsening their image among the Afghan population. NATO has stated that it wants to focus eradication efforts against drug storage sites, so that the losses inflicted are targeted only at criminals.
Neither organization has been able to bridge the gap between their differences, but both claim to be open to further dialogue. Yet, Russia has done almost everything in its power to block the formation of CACI and it is clear that trust remains at a minimum between the US and Russia.
Effective regional cooperation is one of the best ways for governments to directly address transnational threats. Yet, while Central Asia and Afghanistan are becoming increasingly integrated economically, counternarcotics policy is proceeding at a slower pace. This is due to complicating issues of trust between regional actors combined with disputes on border demarcation and control over natural resources between Central Asian states. Central Asian borders with Afghanistan cannot be made secure by physical means alone and any real progress will require the political will to fight against corruption, and for the longterm.
Moving forward, in order for anti-drug policy to be effective, it needs to be first political in nature. This does not only mean getting the principled consent of Central Asian governments, but also means establishing policies to aim to separate criminal networks from the state apparatus. However, this type of policy cannot be forced by the international community, as it would first need the support of the Central Asian elites themselves. Given the unlikeliness of this, Central Asian drug policy will continue to be confined to the lowest common denominator.
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