Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 153

A shared opposition to the constant stream of drugs flowing from the poppy fields in Afghanistan is apparently one of the few remaining areas of cooperation between Kazakhstan and Russia. Since Russia handed over responsibility for protecting the troubled Tajik-Afghan border to poorly equipped and ill-trained Tajik border guards, Russian authorities have frequently expressed their concerns over the security of Russian outposts in the region. Last year the Russian Federal Service for Drug Control opened one office in Kabul and more in the countries located along the “Afghan route” of drug trafficking. Astana has demonstrated a readiness to cooperate with Russia in a bid to stem the tide of drugs coming from both Europe and Afghanistan.

On July 30 Oleg Kharichkin, deputy director of the Russian Federal Service for Drug Control, arrived in Astana to hold talks with his Kazakh counterparts. After signing agreements on cooperation in counteracting drug trafficking, Kharichkin noted the many joint operations carried out by Russian and Kazakh anti-drug units over the last few years. Maratkali Nukenov, the chairman of the Committee for Fighting Drug Trafficking of the Interior Ministry of Kazakhstan, was markedly restrained in his comments, complaining of the “bureaucratic obstacles” created by authorities that minimize the benefits of cooperation (Express-K, July 31).

Russian and Kazakh anti-drug units have been working together for many years, but with little success. As Moscow’s closest ally in Central Asia, Astana always demonstrated its friendly and trustful attitude toward Russia by leaving its border with the great neighbor practically unguarded and introducing “simplified procedure” passport control in border areas. As the result, drug dealers can easily cross the border at dozens of checkpoints in both directions.

Recently, members of the anti-drug squad of the Kazakh Interior Ministry and Russian special services detained eight drug traffickers, both Kazakh and Russian nationals, in Pavlodar region (North Kazakhstan) along the Russian border and seized 900 kilograms of marijuana. The suspects were heading for Kazan, the Tatar capital in Russia. But the arrest represented only one of the numerous well-established drug trafficking networks known by police. Many more still operate in border areas with little risk of being caught, partly because law-enforcement officials are often willing to close their eyes to rampant drug trafficking for the right price. In South Kazakhstan region four police officers from Tolebi district were recently given prison sentences ranging from 10 to 14 years for selling heroin.

Addressing the annual conference on cooperation and security in Central Asia, held in Almaty on June 5, Alikhan Baimenov, a former parliamentary deputy, warned that religious extremism and drug dealing cannot be rooted out or effectively reduced as long as corruption thrives in Central Asia. He thinks that the governments of Central Asian states should promote civic efforts to stamp out drug trafficking (Regnum, July 31).

As part of its anti-drug campaign, the Almaty department of the Committee to Fight Drug Trafficking appealed to managers of nightclubs and other entertainment venues to cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking. But this campaign is obviously doomed to failure, since the Interior Ministry will try to close down entertainment centers at the slightest hint of drug use. This extreme measure infringes on the rights of business people and will likely provoke a wave of protests. But Maratkali Nukenov, the chairman of the Committee to Fight Drug Trafficking, believes the end justifies the means. According to him, the Interior Ministry is already working on amendments to the civil code. If these amendments are endorsed, law-enforcement bodies would not hesitate to close down any nightclub or other entertainment places suspected of drug dealing. Nukenov says these harsh measures are necessary, since people in entertainment centers who peddle drugs currently get off with minimal fines and quickly resume their illegal activities (Panorama, July 27).

A new Interior Ministry report notes 22 cases of drug abuse in entertainment centers of big cities and states that, so far this year, officials have registered more than 6,000 drug-related crimes and seized more than six tons of narcotics, including 250 kilos of high-priced heroin. What is more saddening, more than 600 kilos of drugs were seized in Astana, which is usually depicted as a model city for young generation.

Government and local authorities often ignore any public outcry over the rapid spread of drugs. Officials are not only entangled in red tape and bureaucracy, but they are also largely unable to handle the situation, which spun out of control long ago. Officially reported drug users in Kazakhstan exceed 50,000. But independent experts believe the actual figure is five times higher. Drug dealing has already assumed such an enormous scale that hardly anyone in the Interior Ministry believes international efforts will be successful.

Nevertheless, Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, speaking at the July 9 meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, stressed the importance of international cooperation in fighting drug trafficking, especially with the European Council and OSCE. He pointed out the importance of technical and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in stabilizing the region. Foreign Ministry officials apparently do not overestimate what Russia can offer to stem the flow of drugs from Afghanistan. Some analysts attribute the unprecedented scale of the drug business to the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which allegedly did a good job eradicating almost all poppy fields. This view may trigger some sympathy for the Taliban in largely Muslim Kazakhstan. But as long as it remains a transit route for drug traffickers, Kazakhstan has no other option than to cooperate with international community.