Russia's struggle against narcotics
- The following article appeared on page A24 of the sunday 11 August 2002
edition of The Arizona Republic and is credited to Judith Ingram of the
RUSSIA STRAINS TO STEM RISING TIDE OF DRUGS
Afghan Heroin the Choice of Nation's Users
Moscow--Hidden inside cabages, hollowed walnuts, even the bellies of poor
pregnant women, Afghan heroin steadily flows into Russia, joining a stream
of illegal drugs that officials warn is a growing threat to the nation's
Over the past five years, Russia has become a major way station on the
trafficking route from Afghanistan to European markets.
After a monthlong lull at the start of the war in Afghanistan last fall,
the trade picked up again, Russian police say. They report seizing 1,100
pounds [500 kg] of heroin this year along with more than 2000 pounds [900
kg] stopped on the border between Afghanistan and the former Soviet
republic of Tajikistan.
"We expect a flood of drugs, which are now growing in Afghanistan, in the
second half of the year," said Oleg Kharichkin, deputy director of the
Interior Ministry's drug division.
Drugs From All Over
Afghanistan isn't the only culprit. Traffickers use organised crime channels
to ship cocaine from Latin America through Russian seaports to Europe and
the United States. Peddlers bring in the ephedrine from China. Amphetamines
and other synthetic drugs come from Europe, especially Poland. Ukrainians,
Lithuanians and Belarussians smuggle in poppy straw.
But it is Afghan heroin that has become the narcotic of choice for addicts
in Russia, where more than three million people are estimated to be hooked
on drugs. That is nearly 2.1 percent of the population, which compares with
1.6 percent in the United States, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control
Prevention programmes are nearly non-existent, and the decade after the
collapse of the Soviet Union has seen the steady closure of government-funded
youth clubs and recreation centres that kept many children and teens out of
Seventy percent of Russia's 450,000 registered addicts are 25 and younger,
and most start using drugs at 14 or 15.
Another worry is that the heroin trade finances numerous militant groups
along the country's restive southern flank, threatening security of Russia
and its neighbours.
"Extremists need a lot of cash. For them, drugs are fast, easy, good money,"
said Lieutenant General Konstantin Totsky, chief of Russia's border guards.
Carried by donkeys and humans across the Pyandzh River and the Pamir
Mountains, which form Afghanistan's northern border with Tajikistan,
heroin is smuggled over the mountains of Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan into
Kazakstan, and from there across the sparsely patrolled 4435-mile
[7136 kilometre] frontier with Russia. The U.S.-Mexican border is half as
long and much less rugged.
Russia has 10,700 border guards monitoring the Tajik-Afghan border, along with
10,000 soldiers. Hardly a day goes by without a skirmish. Some drug
couriers are killed, while others escape back into Afghanistan, abandoning
their cargoes for the troops to burn.
Waiting For Shipment
"At present, on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, there are about
seven tons of opium and almost two tons of heroin already warehoused and
ready for transport to Russia and Europe," said Kharichkin, the Interior
Russia is seeking money from the United Nations and Western nations to
strengthen security on the drug routes. Negotiations also are under way to
provide satellite imaging data on poppy cultivation to the Afghan government,
said Lt. Gen. Alexander Sergeyev, chief of the Interior Ministry's
Meanwhile, smugglers are spreading drugs across Russia. Besides Moscow
and St. Petersburg, heroin gangs concentrate on cities in the oil and gas
regions of Siberia and the Far North, where salaries are higher and markets
One major crossroads is the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, about 135
miles north of the Kazak border and a gateway between Asia and the more
densely populated European part of Russia. The city attracts seasonal workers
from Central Asia, who police say run drug-smuggling businesses out of the
city's wholesale produce market. Men, women and children take part.
"More and more we're seeing women in early stages of pregnancy carrying drugs.
For $500 they're prepared to carry heroin in their abdominal cavities,"
said Fyodor Anikeyev, a Yekaterinburg drug squad officer. "Seeing their
pale, unhealthy look, agents naturally pick them out, but doctors refuse to
X-ray them so the babies won't be harmed."
Official corruption also plays a role. Nazir Salimov, head of the
Yekaterinburg squad, said two top Tajik police officials were arrested in
the city in June for trying to seell a large consignment of heroin.
The same month, in Tajikistan, a former deputy defense minister was charged
with trafficking after ordering a military helicopter to drop off 175 pounds
[80 kg] of opium and a pound [450 g] of heroin, officials said.
Activists working with addicts say that Russian officials are deeply
Some Say Law Corrupt
"There's a huge level of corruption in law enforcement agencies at all
levels in Russia," said Father Anatoly Berestov, a neuropathologist and
Russian Orthodox monk who runs a drug-treatment centre at the 17th
Century Krutitskoye church in Moscow.
Interior Ministry officials deny the charge.
Berestov and others also complain that the main police effort appears
aimed at punishing addicts, not traffickers.
Possessing even a small amount of marijuana means up to three years in
prison. Helping a friend counts as distribution, and nets seven to
"Why is there enough money to maintain these prisoners but not enough
for real anti-drug campaigning?" said Anna, a former heroin addict
who works at Krutitskoye centre.
Experts and addicts alike blame the spiritual cricis and particularly
the permissiveness that gripped the country after the Soviet collapse,
including and explosion of pornography, movie and TV violence, and
"This atmosphere of 'everything is permitted' has overwhelmed everyone,"
said Anna, who declines to give her last name. "Plus there's the
situation at home, where parents are running around trying to figure
out how to make enough money to feed their children."
Berestov appears often on television and radio and travels throughout
Russia. The program at his center, which is financed entirely by
donations, includes psychological and medical counseling, work at the
center or a nearby monastery, and a lot of prayer. He claims an 80
percent cure rate for the 3,000 addicts treated.