Azerbaijani government outrage over a US global narcotics report appears to be rooted in a translation error. Nevertheless, Baku's strong reaction appears to be indicative of broader irritation with Washington, as well as sensitivity about increasing drug-use in Azerbaijan.
The roots of the political contretemps between Baku and Washington are found in the March 1 release of the US State Department's 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCS). Several Azerbaijani media outlets carried summaries describing the US report as stating that 30 percent to 35 percent of all Azerbaijani students are drug addicts. [For additional information click here (PDF)]
The report sparked an indignant response from Education Minister Misir Mardanov, who termed the report's findings "an insult to the Azerbaijani people," the pro-government Trend news agency reported.
And in a rare move, the Baku city government authorized a March 11 demonstration outside the US Embassy by the Student Youth Organization, a non-governmental group. About 100 banner-carrying activists gathered outside the American embassy in Baku to declare that "Azerbaijani students are not drug addicted" and "No to State Department's unfair report."
The students' leader told EurasiaNet.org that the protests would continue so long as the US State Department did not change the INCS text.
"The report offended us as Azerbaijanis and as Muslims," commented Shahin Ismayilov. "Thirty to 35 percent of students are female. It is against our mentality to accuse our females of drug addiction."
The Azerbaijani government's indignation over the report appeared to be based on an incorrect translation from English to Azeri. The original International Narcotics Control Strategy (INCS) Report, in fact, stated that students "are thought" to make up some 30 to 35 percent of the country's total number of drug addicts. According to official statistics there are 23,254 addicts in Azerbaijan, but unofficial estimates place the number as high as 300,000.
The assertion also appeared in the Report's 2009 version. [For additional information, click here]
An American diplomat who requested anonymity told EurasiaNet.org that the US Embassy informed the Azerbaijani government about the 2010 Report's actual text. The outcry, nonetheless, continued.
In response to the heightened emotions, the US State Department decided to remove the data from this year's report, embassy spokesperson Terry Davidson told EurasiaNet.org on March 17.
The uproar coincides with two other controversies that are straining ties between Baku and Washington.
A March 4 US House of Representatives committee decision to put to a House vote a non-binding resolution on recognition of Ottoman Turkey's slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide is seen in Baku as a swipe against Azerbaijan's longtime ally, Turkey. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
That same day, a Washington Post article about real estate purchases in Dubai by Azerbaijanis bearing the same names as President Ilham Aliyev's children sparked a terse rebuke from Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration's Political and Public Affairs Department. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The official venting against the INCS report soon followed.
Senior Azerbaijani officials have previously highlighted drug addiction as a growing problem for young people in the Caucasus country. In 2006, State Commission on Fighting Drugs Chairperson Israfil Aliyev claimed that as many as 70 percent of the country's drug users are "young people" [between the ages of 18 and 35], and that 30 percent to 35 percent of that number are university-age students, Trend reported.
Aliyev declined to speak with EurasiaNet.org about the INCS report.
Data from the Ministry of Health shows that the number of registered drug addicts in Azerbaijan has roughly quadrupled over the past decade, rising to over 23,000 in 2009 from 6,000 to 7,000 addicts in 1996-1997.
Citing "international practice," a doctor at one private clinic for drug addicts in Baku estimated that the real number of addicts could be "several times larger than official statistics show."
"People are afraid of going to clinics because of discrimination by society," said Dr. Araz Manuchekhri-Lalei, a senior lecturer on psychiatry at Azerbaijan's State Medical University.
Government statistics put the average age of addiction at 20 years old, but both Dr. Manuchekhri-Lalei and Kamala Aliyeva, head of the Children's Union of Azerbaijan, questioned the accuracy of that figure.
Unlike elsewhere in the world, the average age of Azerbaijani addicts appears to be growing older, Manuchekhri-Lalei claimed. "In my practice, I often meet patients who began using heroin or cocaine when they are already 40 and older," he said.
The recent increase in the "number of people following Islamic rules" about drugs and alcohol appears to have affected the average age of addicts, as more and more younger Azerbaijanis become practicing Muslims, he said.
Amid Azerbaijan's economic boom, drugs of choice for adults have changed from marijuana and hashish to higher-cost heroin, cocaine and LSD, he added.
Aliyeva, meanwhile, believes that the average age of addiction is growing younger. She puts the age at 18 years old, with youngsters between the ages of 13 and 20 making up "the main risk group." While Islam exerts an influence, "societal problems" are contributing to that trend, she added.
Azerbaijan has waged a public information campaign against drug use among youngsters since 1996 via its State Commission on Fighting Drugs, the first such organization in the South Caucasus.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.