Russia’s heroin problem and ongoing battles over Afghan poppy fields

Russia has a heroin problem - a bad one. And drug officials here have been blaming it on the United States, saying its refusal to spray Afghan poppy fields is devastating Russia.

While the two countries have been getting along famously in recent months, resolving serious differences over arms control, Iran and trade, they have not agreed on what to do about the mountains of heroin cascading from Afghanistan. The complaints from Russia grew ever louder - until Friday.

At a briefing in Moscow, Viktor Ivanov, director of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service, declared that U.S. forces acting on information from Russian intelligence had knocked out a complex of four drug labs on the Afghan border with Pakistan, confiscating a ton of heroin worth millions.

“We are jointly working,” Ivanov said Friday, adding that four Russians accompanied U.S. forces, the first time Russians had been at an operation there since withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1989. “As you can see, we do as we promise.”

Ivanov has been campaigning hard against the heroin epidemic - Russia has about 2 million addicts who consume about 21 percent of the world’s supply. But his critics say it is easier to crusade against opium production in Afghanistan than to stem it here, where it’s too profitable a business to disrupt, methadone is illegal and there is no rehabilitation system.

Last year, Richard C. Holbrooke, special U.S. representative to Afghanistan, declared that attempts to eradicate Afghan opium fields had been an expensive failure. Alienated farmers were left destitute, he said, and went straight into the arms of the Taliban. Instead, the United States wants to develop the economy so farmers have other sources of income - a strategy that will not offer quick results - while pursuing drug cartels and money-laundering operations.

“We can only do it together,” Eric S. Rubin, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said Friday. “We cannot do it alone.”

The difficulty encountered in trying to achieve a common approach on Afghan opium, however, illuminates much about the complexity of the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Ivanov, repeatedly and publicly, dates Russia’s heroin problems to 2001, when “the world community adopted some notorious resolutions,” as he said at a forum here over the summer.

Afghanistan has long produced opium, but in 2001, with the Taliban in control, the amount was minute. In 2002, with war underway, production rose to more than 3,000 tons, reaching more than 8,000 tons before dipping last year to about 7,000 tons. Poppies are grown mostly in unstable Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and the financial incentive is huge: A recent survey by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime found opium farmers grossed $4,900 per 2.5 acres while wheat brought $770.

Afghanistan produces nearly all of the world’s illegal opium, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, which estimates that this country of 140 million people - less than half the size of the United States - consumes more than 70 tons of heroin a year. It flows through porous borders with Central Asia northward to Russia, where addiction has traditionally been treated as a moral failing.

Corruption encourages the illegal narcotics trade to flourish, said Kirill Kabanov, chairman of the private National Anti-Corruption Committee.

“If you look at the heroin market,” he said, “about $4 to $5 billion of the market - half of it every year - goes to corruption. There is every incentive to encourage it, and no incentive to oppose it.”

Intricate relationships weave together drug cartels, banks and money-laundering, along with police and prosecutors, he said, creating a powerful system that appears untouchable.

“The fight is going on at the level of small dealers, nothing else,” he said. “So we keep on hearing the phrase, ‘When the coalition got to Afghanistan, the heroin supply increased.’”

Addicts allege kidnapping

Russia itself rarely seizes large amounts of heroin. That’s because, Ivanov said Friday, canny dealers distribute it in small amounts so they won’t suffer big losses if they’re caught.

One drug arrest has been making news. Earlier this month, Yegor Bychkov, who ran a detox center in the Urals, was sentenced to 31/2 years in prison for kidnapping heroin addicts. Bychkov, 23, grew up in the hardscrabble city of Nizhny Tagil, where his mother, Yelena, describes playgrounds littered with syringes, addicts throwing needles out of windows and a city of 300,000 filled with criminals who stay on after release from a collection of prisons located there.

Bychkov dropped out of school after the ninth grade and when he was 18 came under the wing of Yevgeny Roizman, who operates a foundation called City Without Drugs in the larger city of Yekaterinburg, about 45 miles from Nizhny Tagil. Bychkov, who had grown up among dealers, started giving the Nizhny Tagil police tips that led to many drug arrests, Roizman said, before the police turned on him and accused him of seizing drug addicts and holding them against their will. Police concern for drug addicts startled many Russians, who regularly place police at the top of corruption lists.

“Nizhny Tagil is famous for being very corrupt,” Roizman said. “Drug dealers can openly sell drugs there. That means someone lets them.”

With no drug treatment available in Nizhny Tagil and families desperate for help, a priest, Gennady Vedernikov, helped Bychkov open the detox center in an Orthodox church, Vedernikov said.

It was primitive. Addicts, in a state of crisis, were brought by their parents, who signed agreements for a regime of prayer and fasting on a diet of bread, tea, water, garlic and onion.

“We did it because parents begged us,” Vedernikov said. “We isolated them from all drugs. We restricted their movements. Prayer and fasting is a Christian tradition.”

Then, a year and a half ago, several addicts signed a complaint saying they had been taken against their will and tortured. The accusers quickly disappeared, said Anastasia Uderevskaya, Bychkov’s lawyer, and the trial was delayed while they were tracked down.

“During preliminary hearings, they said their previous evidence was taken under pressure and under the influence of drugs,” she said, “and they said they could give no evidence against him. The judge and prosecutor said they believed what they had said earlier.”

Sergey Poliatykin, chief of medical programs for No to Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, a Moscow foundation, said it is difficult to know for sure what was happening in Nizhny Tagil, where numerous groups are maneuvering for advantage in the drug trade. Certainly, he said, Bychkov had no training in helping addicts. Neither did the government offer rehabilitation or oversee such attempts. Ivanov himself said Friday that he thought Bychkov was well-intentioned.

“What I think is he’s a victim more than anything else,” Poliatykin said.

Building trust

Last week, Ivanov met in Washington with his counterpart, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, as part of a joint commission to resolve the drug problem. Ivanov complained about the Afghan opium fields and said that U.S. forces were not acting quickly enough on Russian information. But he also said he had gotten good ideas about treatment systems.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime has been trying to set up an anti-drug intelligence network, and agreements have been signed on one side by Russia, Azerbaijan and the five Central Asian republics. Iran, another major transit country, has signed agreements with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“If both would become fully operational,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime representative to Afghanistan, “an intelligence network would stretch over the wider region surrounding and including Afghanistan, profoundly changing the rules of the game. However, to achieve this, more confidence and trust is required among the countries involved.”

The United States and Russia, at least, are now working together, Ivanov said. And then he added, “If there was no drug production in Afghanistan, there would be no drug traffic in Russia.”


By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service

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