Turkmenistan Struggles to Combat Drugs
Turkmenistan has been struggling to do something about its massive drug problem which involves both widespread addiction among the population and narcotics-smuggling across its border with neighboring Afghanistan. It's one of the few areas where Turkmenistan seems to publicly cooperate with the international community -- up to a point.
Recently, Turkmenistan renewed a counternarcotics program with the US . Rashid Meredov, foreign minister and deputy chairman of Turkmenistan’s Cabinet of Ministers signed the amended agreement on behalf of Turkmenistan, and US Ambassador Robert E. Patterson signed on behalf of the United States Government.
The [agreement] Amendment extends support for the "Counternarcotics" project, designed to increase the investigative skills of counternarcotics officers and improve the State Counter Narcotics Center (SCNS) training facility. The goal of this project is to improve the interdiction and investigation skills of the Turkmen counternarcotics police through curriculum development and the donation of equipment to the SCNS Training Center.
Of course, the US is happy to gain traction in any program that gives it access to helping control the border with Afghanistan.
Back in 2009, Berdymukhamedov was so upset about opiate addiction among soldiers that he declared it a matter of national security. In a December 2010 article for the German-funded radio station Deutsche Welle, Ayshe Berdyyeva said drugs were a "national catastrophe" in Turkmenistan. Yet Turkmenistan recently refused to join the Central Asian anti-narcotics quartet formed by Russia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, saying it had the problem under control already, she reported. But a physician she interviewed said that no adequate treatment programs really existed -- drug addicts were sometimes arrested and thrown in psychiatric hospitals, where they were treated with psychotropic drugs during withdrawal and released without follow-up. Desperate parents have taken their children to Russia for treatment programs there, only to watch helplessly as they fall into addiction again when they return home.
The one time under the rule of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov where there was a terrorist attack in the capital against alleged Islamic militants and massive police response, officials claimed that it was related to illegal narcotics.
Ashgabat periodically announces mass burnings of drugs confiscated at the border. Last year, law-enforcement stepped up their fight after discovery by the president himself of a poppy field in the central Karakum desert while he was on a tour of gas fields, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Crackdowns ensued in all five provinces, and various farmers were dragged on to state television to confess the error of their ways in growing poppy.
On October 18, a delegation of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) led by Miwa Kato, program management officer, was received at the Turkmen Foreign Ministry, the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH) reported. Kato had a number of meetings with various other ministries, including the State Service on Drugs, and took pains to laud Berdymukhamedov's great "international cooperation in combating illicit drug traffic and money laundering on a global scale and tackling other threats to peace and security on the planet," said TDH.
The European Union and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) also have a joint anti-narcotics program with Turkmenistan and has supplied drug-sniffing dogs and helped build a canine depot. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has also provided training.
What's missing are non-governmental organizations that could provide both public education and prevention and treatment programs -- they simply aren't allowed in Turkmenistan. And the true extent of the problems can't be known until independent media is allowed to cover the issue.
An alleged diplomatic cable dated December 30, 2009 released by the activist group WikiLeaks contains an account of the Turkmen government's twice-a-year drug burning rituals and the official program to eradicate illegal narcotics, which the report says mainly come from neighboring Afghanistan. Yet addiction is a growing problem:
Despite the publicity surrounding the drug burning ceremony and other counternarcotics efforts in Turkmenistan, drug addiction remains a large problem. During the 1990s many young people started using drugs because of increased availability and rising unemployment. President Berdimuhamedov has focused on increasing law enforcement capacity to counter the drug problem (ref A) and has taken a more punitive stance towards drug-related crimes than former President Niyazov, refusing to amnesty people arrested on drug-related charges (ref B). While (unlike his predecessor) the current president has admitted that there is a drug abuse problem, he has done little in the way of prevention. For example, schools still do not have anti-drug education programs.
Berdyyeva says that in fact arrested drug sellers are now amnestied and put back out on the street again, to the chagrin of law-enforcers. A prosecutor told her that all the 2,000 people pardoned in December 2010 were related to drugs in one way or another, either dealers or addicts who had committed petty crimes to maintain their habits.