- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

MOSCOW Hidden inside cabbages, hollowed walnuts, even the bellies of desperately poor pregnant women, Afghan heroin steadily flows into Russia, joining a stream of illegal drugs that officials warn is a growing threat to the nation's stability.
Over the past five years, Russia has become a major way station on the trafficking route from Afghanistan to European markets.
After a monthlong lull at the start of the war in Afghanistan last fall, the trade has picked up again, Russian police say. They report seizing 1,100 pounds of heroin so far this year, along with more than 2,000 pounds stopped on the border between Afghanistan and the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan.
"We expect a flood of drugs, which are now growing in Afghanistan, in the second half of the year," said Oleg Kharichkin, deputy director of the Russian Interior Ministry's narcotics division.
Afghanistan isn't the only culprit. Traffickers use organized-crime channels to ship cocaine from Latin America through Russian seaports to Europe and the United States. Peddlers bring in the stimulant ephedrine from China. Amphetamines and other synthetic drugs come from Europe, especially Poland. Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarussians smuggle in poppy straw.
But it is Afghan heroin that has become the narcotic of choice for addicts in Russia, where more than 3 million people are estimated to be hooked on drugs. That is nearly 2.1 percent of the population, which compares with 1.6 percent in the United States, as estimated by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Prevention programs are nearly nonexistent, and the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union has seen the steady closure of government-funded youth clubs and recreation centers that kept many children and teenagers out of trouble.
Seventy percent of Russia's 450,000 officially registered addicts are 25 and younger, and most start using drugs at age 14 or 15.
Another worry for Russia is that the heroin trade finances numerous militant groups along the country's restive southern flank, threatening security within Russia and its neighbors.
"Extremists need a lot of cash. For them, drugs are fast, easy, good money," said Lt. Gen. Konstantin Totsky, chief of Russia's border guards.
Heroin is carried by donkeys and human couriers across the Pyandzh River and the Pamir Mountains, which form Afghanistan's northern border with Tajikistan and is then smuggled over the mountains of Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan and from there across the sparsely patrolled 4,435-mile border with Russia. The U.S.-Mexican border is half as long and much less rugged.
Russia has 10,700 border guards monitoring the Tajik-Afghan border, along with 10,000 Russian soldiers. Hardly a day goes by without a skirmish. Some drug couriers are killed, and others escape back into Afghanistan, abandoning their precious cargo for the troops to burn.
"At present, on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, there are about seven tons of opium and almost two tons of heroin already warehoused and ready for transport to Russia and Europe," said Mr. Kharichkin, the Interior Ministry official.
Russia is seeking money from the United Nations and Western nations to strengthen security on the drug routes. Negotiations are also under way to provide satellite-imaging information on poppy cultivation to the Afghan government, said Lt. Gen. Alexander Sergeyev, chief of the Interior Ministry's anti-trafficking department.
In the meantime, smugglers are spreading drugs across Russia. In addition to Moscow and St. Petersburg, heroin gangs concentrate on cities in the oil and gas regions of Siberia and the Far North, where salaries are higher and potential markets richer.
One major crossroads in the trade is the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, about 135 miles north of the Kazakh border and a gateway between Asia and the more densely populated European part of Russia. The city attracts seasonal workers from Central Asia, who police say run drug-smuggling businesses out of the city's wholesale produce market. Men, women and children take part.
"More and more we're seeing women in early stages of pregnancy carrying drugs. For $500 they're prepared to carry heroin in their abdominal cavities," said Fyodor Anikeyev, an officer in the Yekaterinburg narcotics squad. "Seeing their pale, unhealthy look, agents [at the airport] naturally pick them out, but doctors refuse to X-ray them so the babies won't be harmed."
Official corruption also plays a role. Nazir Salimov, head of the Yekaterinburg squad, said two top Tajik police officials were arrested in the city in June for trying to sell a large consignment of heroin.
The same month, in Tajikistan, a former deputy defense minister was charged with drug trafficking after reportedly ordering use of a military helicopter to drop off 175 pounds of opium and a pound of heroin.
Activists working with addicts charge that Russian officials are deeply involved, too.
"There's a huge level of corruption in law enforcement agencies at all levels in Russia," said Father Anatoly Berestov, a neuropathologist and Russian Orthodox monk who runs a drug treatment center at the 17th-century Krutitskoye Church in central Moscow.
Interior Ministry officials deny the charge.
Father Berestov and others also complain that the main police effort appears intended to punish addicts, not traffickers.
Possessing even a small amount of marijuana means as long as three years in prison. Helping a friend get the drug counts as distribution and means seven to 15 years.
"Why is there enough money to maintain these prisoners but not enough for real anti-drug campaigning?" said Anna, a 23-year-old former heroin addict who works at the Krutitskoye center.
Experts and addicts alike blame the spiritual crisis and particularly the permissiveness that gripped the country after the Soviet collapse, including an explosion of pornography, movie and TV violence, and unfettered teenage drinking.
"This atmosphere of 'everything is permitted' has overwhelmed everyone," said Anna, who declined to give her last name. "Plus there's the situation at home, where parents are running around trying to figure out how to make enough money to feed their children."
Of the few rehabilitation programs, almost all charge money for treatment, in contrast with the Soviet era, when alcohol and drug treatment was both free and mandatory.
Father Berestov appears often on television and radio, and travels throughout Russia. The program at his 4-year-old center, which is financed entirely by donations, includes psychological and medical counseling, work at the center or a nearby monastery, and a lot of prayer. He claims an 80 percent cure rate for the 3,000 addicts treated.
"They're all former criminals, even murderers," the monk said matter-of-factly. "But I'm not a police officer. I'm a priest, and my role is to repair."
The police say their efforts are beginning to bear fruit. Heroin is becoming harder to get, and its price is rising reaching about $30 per gram in Moscow, three times the price in 1999.
Doctors say that the number of newly registered drug users 18 and under fell by about a third last year and that deaths by overdose, arrests of suspects in a drug-induced state and drug-provoked psychoses are also down.
But Father Berestov, who gets new patients every day, says he has seen no letup. If anything, he and other experts say, young people are just turning to different substances, including strong over-the-counter medicines as well as Russia's traditional addiction alcohol.


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