Kyrgyzstan: A Look at Central Asia’s Drug War

By Richard Weitz

The volume of narcotics flowing out of Afghanistan to Central Asia and Russia appears to have decreased slightly over the past year. But the stockpile of opiates that traffickers already have on hand is sufficient to supply users in Central Asia and Russia for 15 years, according to a leading drug-control expert in Kyrgyzstan.

Afghanistan is the world’s major producer of heroin and other poppy-based products. At an international gathering in Vienna on February 16, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that opiate production in Afghanistan rose 61 percent over the past year.

During a presentation at George Mason University in Virginia on February 21, Aleksandr Zelitchenko, the coordinator of the European Union’s Central Asian Drug Action Program in Kyrgyzstan, examined the impact of Afghanistan’s narcotics trafficking crisis on Central Asia. Roughly 70 percent of illicit Afghan opiate exports flowing to Western Europe pass through Iran, Turkey and the Balkan states. Most of the remainder uses a northern route via Central Asia. About 60 percent of the drugs trafficked via Central Asian routes are consumed in Russia, he said.

“Not all of Russian territory is under the influence of drugs from Afghanistan. First of all, it is Siberia, where there are a lot of people receiving a good salary, and in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the biggest cities, 15, 20, of them, not all,” Zelitchenko said.

> Map of Kyrgyzstan
When it comes to combating trafficking, Zelitchenko lamented the "excessive politicization" of the narcotics problem in Central Asia. He was specifically referring to reports that Russia exerted pressure on Central Asian states to reject a US State Department plan to contain traffickers, dubbed the Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative (CACI). The US plan, presented at the February 16 meeting in Vienna, would have established a network of anti-trafficking experts to share information among interested states and make counter-narcotics operations more efficient and effective.

Zelitchenko, a retired Kyrgyz State Police colonel who helped found and lead his government’s Special Drug Control Service, hinted that Kremlin policymakers were letting latent animosity and suspicion of the United States get in the way of a pragmatic response to a mutual concern. “Let’s do our job together as partners,” he said, referring to CACI. At the same time, Zelitchenko suggested the Afghan trafficking issue offered an opportunity for cooperation between NATO and the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization. Moscow has long sought to open direct contacts between NATO and the CSTO. Atlantic Alliance officials take a dim view of the idea.

Concerning Kyrgyzstan, Zelitchenko suggested that the actual number of illicit drug users was probably 10 times greater than the official number of 10,000. Most users are hooked on heroin, stoking ancillary public-health problems, in particular a rise in HIV infections. “Sixty-five percent of new cases of HIV patients result from the harmful sharing needle practice among drug users,” he said.

Of late, “char," a high-quality form of hashish made in Afghanistan, is displacing traditional opiates in drugs seizures in Kyrgyzstan, Zelitchenko noted. The surge of narcotics flowing into Kyrgyzstan is undermining the government’s ability to stabilize the country, both in a political and economic sense. “Unprecedented drug-born corruption” poses a greater “national and regional security” threat than drug consumption itself because corruption can “undermine the state,” he said.

Zelitchenko advocated creating a special department to investigate “corrupt channels” used to transport narcotics through the region under CSTO’s auspices. He went on to praise Russia as “an important donor” nation to regional counter-narcotics mechanisms.
Editor's note:  Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.