The Three Evils of Narco-Policy in Central Asia

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by Reid Standish on 7/9/2013 · 7 comments

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 as part of the Balkan route.

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.

Opiate Seizures in Tajikistan

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.

Kyrgyzstan trafficking routes

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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This post was written by...

– author of 6 posts on Registan.net.

Reid Standish is a freelance journalist and grad student at the University of Glasgow in the Erasmus Mundus International Master's in Russian, Central and Eastern European Studies programme. Reid has travelled extensively throughout Central Asia and is a longtime student of the region's politics. Currently, he is researching his thesis on counternarcotics and foreign assistance in Kyrgyzstan and is a visiting student at Kazakhstan's KIMEP University. Reid currently lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

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{ 7 comments }

GG July 9, 2013 at 6:15 pm

“Without directly targeting corruption itself, anti-drug trafficking policies have been effectively neutered…” – Oh so true.

Martin Doyle July 10, 2013 at 2:08 am

While the production, storage, and transit of opiates is of considerable concern throughout the region, one wonders about the state capacity under the current klan (political and economic elites) system to effect meaningful change. With contention already increasing between the klans and clans (extending biological families found primarily in rural areas) existing plans enumerated here appear a veneer for future exogenous military intervention.

Franklin July 10, 2013 at 11:11 am

As someone who subscribes to constructivism, I like to think that over time, change is possible, as new norms are formed. However, when it comes to Central Asia, its hard to say which direction things are moving. The OSCE and similar organizations seem to be waning and there are so many normative alternatives out there for Central Asian elites to adopt.

Anyways, nice article and solid analysis. I liked your last sentence and I agree with it. Things ARE operating at the lowest common denominator at the moment.

Reid Standish July 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Hi Franklin,

What you said about constructivism and norms is interesting. Have you ever read David Lewis’ article talking about that? Here is the citation line for you, or anybody else.

Very good paper.

David Lewis (2012): Who’s Socialising Whom? Regional Organisations and Contested Norms in Central Asia, Europe-Asia Studies, 64:7, 1219-1237

TK July 11, 2013 at 9:24 am

Two points:

(1) Rampant corruption, governance mismanagement and poverty (in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, in particular) allows for the drug trade to also do some good, i.e. allow many households among the populations to benefit either as farmers or small-scale courriers. Unless corruption and good governance are not addressed, so that ordinary folk can make a descent living for honost work, combatting trafficking at the source will also hurt them and cause social/political unrest.

(2) The issue of drug trade analysis is always blamed on the source. This article does the same. What about the end-users? It is said: If consumers want chocolate, someone out there will make it and bring it to them! Likewise with heroine: As long there is a demand, somehow the supply will be there too. It’s economics 101. Western states (including Russia) must look inward, as well. Why are large numbers of their people consuming dangerous substances? Surely it has social-pscychological basis. What are those? Unless reasons behind the demand for drugs is addressed, illicit trafficking will continue, whether its from Central Asia or a chemical lab in downtown St. Petersberg or Vienna.

Reid Standish July 11, 2013 at 9:40 am

Thanks for your comment.

I agree with your points. Your first point is a very good one, and is a very interesting aspect of the drug trade and definitely worthy of more attention. In my mind, its another reason why this is such an interesting topic, because of its complexities and how it cross-cuts many issues.

For your second point, I agree with it as well. Also, I don’t think that I am blaming the source in my analysis. Yes, you do need to address both supply and demand and that was a point that I was alluding to in the first section when discussing how the problem is being framed narrowly. “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.” Meaning, that things are being viewed as merely an origin problem and only focusing on border security as a result. I do not blame the source.

There are lots of push and pull factors going on here, too many to focus on in one article. Thanks for you comments, though, they are good points.

James Callahan July 12, 2013 at 11:56 am

Good overall analysis but a couple of small inaccuracies: in the cases of the Tajik and Kyrgyz drug control agencies (both established by UNODC) members of the presidential families were never the heads of those agencies. One of the sons of the President of Tajikistan has been appointed head of the Customs Service’s counternarcotics department, though. The Kyrgyz DCA was re-established as the State Drug Control Service in 2010. Both the U.S. and Russia provide funding support to the Kyrgyz and Tajik drug control agencies/services. In regard to CACI, no Central Asian government rejected it but it was not possible for the reasons stated in the article to achieve a consensus statement in support of it. CACI is still operational though, working through UNODC, and bilaterally in several countries.

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