Kyrgyzstan, a relatively sleepy and remote republic in the Soviet era, now finds itself at the epicenter of the global narcotics trade. How the Kyrgyz government, acting in concert with the international community, responds to the security threat posed by trafficking could have a significant impact on the region's development.
The indicators are not promising that regional governments, in particular Kyrgyzstan, are capable of containing the drug trade. Rampant corruption -- in large part a product of widescale criminal activity related to drug trafficking is undermining the ability of governments to take action. It is also causing the loss of credibility in the eyes of the general population. In addition, trafficking is eroding the overall social fabric, as growing drug abuse helps push crime rates higher.
In Kyrgyzstan's case, there does not exist one 'drug mafia' that controls the transport of narcotics from Afghanistan, or one that controls the production and distribution of narcotics grown at home. During the period since the republic gained independence, several 'drug mafias' have emerged to fight over trafficking profits. It is indeed a very profitable business, with the United States Administration on Countering Narcotics estimating that one US dollar invested in the drug trade produces a 12,240 US-dollar return.
One such 'drug mafia' in Kyrgyzstan is controlled by ethnic Russians who established ties with Afghanis during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. A second 'drug mafia' consists of Turkish criminal organizations cooperating with their Kyrgyz counterparts. Perhaps the most influential and powerful 'drug mafia' in Kyrgyzstan, however, consists of Georgians, Azeris and Chechens who have established rings with Kyrgyz, and other Central Asian groups.
These drug mafias tend to use several routes to move narcotics into the Commonwealth of Independent States and then on to Europe. These routes include those that run through Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan (often via Uzbekistan), and then to Russia.
The break-up of the Soviet Union facilitated the transformation of Kyrgyzstan, along with the other Central Asian republics, into trafficking havens. The collapse led to the relaxation of border controls, and prompted the economic chaos that allowed corruption to flourish. At the same time, post-collapse conditions encouraged farmers to grow illicit crops in order to support their families. The situation is such that, in and around the southern city of Osh, tens of thousands of people are involved in the dealing, moving, growing or processing of raw opium.
Other factors are also responsible for turning Central Asian nations into trafficking hotbeds.. First, a large Russian market for drugs opened, and subsequently had to be supplied. And second, Iran could no longer be used as a major transport point of drugs from Afghanistan. Following a strict anti-drug campaign in the 1980s, the Iranian government was successful in virtually sealing off its border with Afghanistan, thus causing considerable disruption to the flow of narcotics.
Trafficking emerged as a problem in Central Asia in the early 1990s, as Afghan and Pakistani dealers began shipping a considerable amount of narcotics through the region. However, it was not long before local 'drug mafias' became aware of the local growing potential. Consequently, the production of opiates and marijuana from the Osh region and around Lake Issyk-Kyl has developed into big business. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan itself now exports more narcotics than Burma (Myanmar) or Thailand.
A source of concern is the link developing between the drug trade and radical ethnic and religious groups in Central Asia. Recently, an official at the United Nations Drug Control Program stated that "a clear connection is seen between religious extremist groups in the Caucasus region and the countries of Central Asia, and contraband weapons, terrorist activity and the drug trade."
Kyrgyzstan has attempted to deal with the threat of drug production and trafficking in a variety of ways, including establishing a National Drug Intelligence Unit. The government also has worked on writing anti-trafficking legislation stepping up interdiction activities, and increasing its cooperating with the Western states. Kyrgyzstan has also signed all the major United Nations drug conventions, and is party to several regional initiatives - the latest being the Shanghai Summit Declaration, signed in August 1999. This eleven-point declaration pledged cooperation in fighting terrorism, arms and drug trafficking, national separatism, and religious extremism.
Regardless of national and regional initiatives, Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states face serious hurdles to turning words into action.. Aside from corruption, anti-trafficking efforts are hindered by bureaucratic rivalries and infighting, as well as shortages in manpower and resources.
The front line of the Kyrgyz fight against drugs -- border control points are woefully inadequate, often consisting of flimsy metal barriers, a trailer, possibly a sniffer dog, and a unit of ill-trained and underarmed border troops. Major-General Askarbek Mameyev, head of the State Commission on Drug Control in 1998, pointed to the fact that of the estimated 220 pounds of processed opium that enters Kyrgyzstan via Afghanistan every week, only 5 percent is seized at the borders.
The international community is aware of the threat, and has developed several limited assistance programs. Since 1993 the United Nations Drug Control Program has provided anti-trafficking assistance to every country in the region except Tajikistan. In 1997, the United Nations agreed to actively support the "Osh Knot" project, promoting cooperation among Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on trafficking-related issues. Aside from providing token technical assistance, the international community has done little to help curb the growing problem of narcotics production and trafficking in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia in general.
Regardless of the amount of money placed into anti-drug programs and law-enforcement training, the drug trade will continue to flourish in Central Asia for a variety of reasons, the most obvious stemming from poor economic conditions. Before the question of the drug trade can be addressed, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan must take steps to promote greater political and economic stability.
The continued viability of the Central Asian states as sovereign entities could be at stake. Drug trafficking is helping to undermine both the social structures and political systems of Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian republics. The governments' inability to deal with the debilitating effects of the drug trade opens the way for Russian, Turkish, Iranian or Chinese interference in regional affairs. Responding to a 1998 interview question asking whether the drug-mafias of Kyrgyzstan had enough means to appoint presidents and annul governments, President Askar Akayev answered, "Kyrgyzstan serves as a transit for narcotics carriers, and things haven't gone so far with us, but if narcotics dealing is not restrained decisively, it may end up in what you have mentioned."
Tamara Makarenko is an independent consultant specializing in Central Asian security. A former lecturer in the department of International Relations at the American University, Kyrgyzstan, she has conducted extensive research in the region. She is also a doctoral candidate at the department of International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.