On June 21, the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta published a sensational report implicating Turkmenistani officials in the illegal drug trade. So far the revelations have apparently been overlooked both in Russia and Turkmenistan. During the interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta, the former deputy head of the Central Bank of Turkmenistan, Annadury Khajaev, stated that he was ready to testify about how the Turkmenistani regime is coordinating drug trafficking activities. According to Khajaev, in the summer of 1993 he was summoned by President Saparmurat Niyazov’s chief of staff, who ordered him to surrender the keys to an empty storage room in the bank’s vault. The chief of staff explained that this room was needed to store government valuables that required the same level of security as monetary assets. Initially Khajaev objected to this directive, citing the Central Bank’s operating procedures, which expressly prohibit anything not related to the Central Bank’s activities to be stored on the bank’s premises. However, under pressure from the office of the chief of staff and the special services, Khajaev was eventually forced to relent and hand over the keys to one of the storage areas.
Bank regulations stipulate that at least three authorized bank employees must be present any time one of the Central Bank’s storage areas is opened or closed. The bank employees present when the top-secret government goods were placed in the storage vault regularly reported to Khajaev that the “government valuables” periodically arriving at the bank were suspiciously packed in burlap sacks and large metal canisters. The bank employees naturally wondered what kind of precious valuables would be stored in such containers. Drugs, perhaps? Khajaev’s suspicions were confirmed when a representative from Turkmenistan’s law enforcement agencies privately told him that the secret cargo had been “deposited” into the vault with the president’s knowledge and in accordance with his personal instructions.
Khajaev’s interest in this “special consignment” was not unnoticed by the special services and soon he was summoned by the head of the presidential security service, Akmurad Redzhepov, and the chairman of the Committee for National Security, Muhammad Nazarov. They warned Khajaev to keep quiet about this matter. According to Khajaev, he was told that if he disclosed any information about this operation, he would share the same fate as Vitaly Usachev. A major in the state border-guard service, Usachev had attempted to prevent a large shipment of drugs from departing the Ashgabat airport and was shot to death.
Khajaev, a Russian citizen, fled Turkmenistan in 2001 and currently lives in Bulgaria. He claims that most of the government officials in a position to know about the Turkmenistani drug trafficking operation have either been killed under mysterious circumstances or are serving time in jail. Current inmates include the former chairman of the Committee for National Security, Muhammad Nazarov, and the former head of the border-guard service, Akmurad Kabulov, who personally knew about every border crossing by drug couriers. The Central Bank employees who involuntarily witnessed the drug deposits were also jailed. Turkmenistani politicians have refused to comment on Khajaev’s interview, even on the condition of anonymity.
Turkmenistan has officially overlooked the drug trade both inside and across its borders. While Afghanistan experienced a steady growth in drug production over the last decade, neighboring Turkmenistan never condemned the operation. Even as drug consumption grew in Turkmenistan, government officials attending various international conferences and meetings sought to find either justifications or mitigating circumstances to explain the crimes committed by Afghan drug producers. Ashgabat is always quick to point out that the Afghans are forced into the drug trade by their extreme poverty and economic hardship. Many observers consider Turkmenistan’s position to be careless yet expected, given the relaxed attitude towards drugs so prevalent in that country. In this regard, President Niyazov’s comment that “opium helps in interaction with women,” could be interpreted as an official advertisement for this dangerous drug.
A 2003 report by the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Development, “The Drug War Against Russia,” noted the rapid expansion of irrigated poppy fields in the Karakum Desert. However, as the report makes clear, most of the drugs in Turkmenistan came from Afghanistan and are bound for Russia. One of the most popular smuggling routes is the ferry connecting the city of Turkmenbashi with Astrakhan (e-journal.ru/p_besop-st5-10.html). According to information released by the Astrakhan branch of the Russian Federal Security Service, while the local black market once dealt mainly in opium and “light drugs,” there has been a noticeable growth in heroin from Central Asia since 1997.
In his interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta, Khajaev implied that large quantities of drugs are sent to Russia disguised as diplomatic cargo, allowing them to bypass inspections on both the Turkmen or Russia sides of the border. Nezavisimaya gazeta’s editors were initially reluctant to publish the interview because they feared it would create an international scandal. However, no fury has ensued. Neither the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Moscow nor the Russian Foreign Ministry even commented on Khajaev’s allegations.