- - Friday, December 9, 2011

Bishkek, KYRGYZSTAN — An increase in drug addiction and drug-related crime is taking a toll on Kyrgyzstan, which lies on a major drug-trafficking route between Afghanistan and Europe, local officials say.

“We were once just a transit country for Afghan drugs. We were only involved in some latent crimes,” said Timur Iskakov, a representative of the State Service for Drug Control (SSDC).

“Some criminal groups were created on our territory, which were earning drug dollars, and in the 1990s people thought, ‘Why fight these drugs? They’ll go to Kazakhstan and Russia for sale, and the profit will stay in Kyrgyzstan.’ “

The SSDC estimates that six tons of heroin enters Kyrgyzstan each year.

“Today, a dose of heroin costs the same as a few bottles of beer — about $5,” Mr. Iskakov said. “Unfortunately, it’s very dangerous when a dose is affordable to those who want to get high.”

The social consequences of easily available drugs are severe, social workers and analysts say, noting that 10,000 Kyrgyz citizens have registered as drug addicts.

Kyrgyzstan has the highest rates of HIV infections in Central Asia, and according to the SSDC, 62 percent of those cases are the result of intravenous drug use.

In addition, the multimillion dollar drug-trafficking industry is the main business of organized crime in Kyrgyzstan and has long been linked to political corruption, officials say.

“Drug-related corruption is the evil that can literally bring a country like ours to its knees,” said Alexander Zelichenko, director of the Central-Asian Center for Drug Policy in Kyrgyzstan. “Corruption is no less harmful than drug use itself.”

In places known as “red areas,” particularly in the southern region of Osh, the drug trade is controlled by police, the official said.

“There’s so-called ‘red heroin,’ which is where police officers do the trafficking themselves,” Mr. Zelichenko said. “It’s true and it’s scary.

“Luckily, the government has started reacting to it, and law enforcement agencies themselves have started special operations to clean up their agencies, although it’s still very hard and we’ve made only the first half-steps.”

Still, local police involvement in drug peddling is only the tip of the iceberg, Mr. Zelichenko said, adding that he believes the influence of drug dollars reaches the highest levels of government and politics.

“Drugs have an influence on political processes,” he said. “Drug money-laundering was taking place during political elections [after the 2005 Tulip Revolution] in the parliament and other high levels. It is a direct interference in policy.”

A series of assassinations of businessmen and high-level politicians shortly after the Tulip Revolution, in which President Askar Akayev, Kyrgyzstan’s first post-Soviet leader was overthrown, were rumored to have been linked to the drug trade.

In 2009, Mr. Akayev’s successor, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was widely criticized for failing to take action on corruption and crime, closed Kyrgyzstan’s Drug Control Agency.

Corruption remains a problem in Kyrgyzstan: This month, the country was rated 164 out of 182 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Since Mr. Bakiyev was ousted in a popular uprising last year, the Drug Control Agency has been reinstated as the SSDC, and officials say that heroin seizures in the past 10 months are up by 113 percent over 2010 figures. Even so, analysts say there is still much to be done.

“I’d describe the drug situation in the Kyrgyzstan as that we have managed to prevent the catastrophe, but yet we’re still on the edge, a few steps away from the abyss,” Mr. Iskakov said. “I don’t want our country to become a drug swamp.”

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