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Tajikistan: The Economics of the Drug Trade in a Poor Country

Categories: Central Asia & Caucasus, Tajikistan, Economics & Business, Governance, Politics

It sometimes takes a story published in a foreign magazine to spark a discussion in a society where local media is tightly controlled. In Tajikistan, it took an article run by the The Economist to trigger a conversation on news websites about corruption among the country’s officials and their involvement in drug trade.

The article, titled ‘Drugs in Tajikistan: Addicted’ claims [1] that stability in the country depends on an uninterrupted flow of narcotics through its territory. Following a seven-year civil war in the 1990s, the small Central Asian nation sharing a porous border with Afghanistan has become a major transit route for Afghan heroin smuggled to Russia. As a result, the country finds itself “at the heart of a multi-billion-dollar network smuggling heroin” and, rampant poverty notwithstanding, its capital is “awash with cash, construction and flash cars.”

Border tower on Tajikistan's southern border with Afghanistan. Photo by Alexander Sodiqov (2009)

According to The Economist, the drug trade is managed by officials who are formally in charge of combating the trafficking. These officials maintain local security. In exchange, the government turns a blind eye to their involvement in heroin trade. The Economist claims that any attempt to challenge this arrangement risks sparking violence in the country that experienced a bloody civil war in the 1990s.

Although the article was published on April 21, 2012, its content became available to many people in Tajikistan only after parts of it were translated and reproduced by select local media in early May.

After Radio Ozodi summarized the article and published [2] [tj] it with critique from Tajik officials and experts, one reader suggested in the comments section that the claims made by the magazine were a “lie” or at least an exaggeration. But other readers disagreed with this assessment:

Инсон: Рост гуфтаст ин “Economist”. Кучояш дуруг аст??? Ягон гапи хато нагуфтааст, биёед аз руи инсоф гап занем.

Inson: The Economist is telling the truth. Where do you see the lies? Everything is correct. We should be honest to ourselves.

Махмуд: Ин мачалла магзи хакикати гапа гуфтааст.

Mahmud: The magazine has gotten to the essence of the issue.

Most of the discussion on news websites has focused on corruption that enables heroin trade. People in Tajikistan seem to have little doubt about the origin of lavish cars and expensive apartments owned by public servants, particularly senior officials in the law-enforcement agencies. Luxury stands out in the country where almost half of the population still lives below the poverty line.

Ravshan_1980 on the TopTJ.com [3] [ru] suggests:

Ну конечно весь наркооборот контролируется людьми, связанными с государством! И руководители страны и правоохранительных органов смотрят на это сквозь пальцы. Иначе почему никто не спрашивает у работников МВД, прокуратуры и АКН откуда у них шикарные автомобили и дорогие квартиры несмотря на мизерные зарплаты?

Of course the narcotics trade is controlled by people connected to the state. The leadership of the country and law-enforcement agencies turn a blind eye to this. Nobody asks officials at the Ministry of Internal Affairs [police], prosecutor’s office, and Drug Control Agency how they are able to afford expensive vehicles and apartments despite small salaries.

Another commenter, writing on the Radio Ozodi’s website, has a similar opinion:

Мачаллаи бритониёи бисёри бисёр Точикистони азизи дилу дидаи моро сад дар сад дуруст фахмидааст. Хамаи кормандони сохибвазифаи ватани мо кариб 99 фоизашон ба ришвагири машгуланд, кадом коргари имрузаи точик бо музди мехнати таинкардаи имрузаи давлат сохиби хонаву дар сохиби мошинхои аз 50 то 100 хазордоллара мегардад? Ягонтаашон сохиб намешуд, на прокурор на суд на полис на дигару дигар… Ана хамин сохторхои гуфташуда ва чанд сохторхои дигар сохиби хамаи нушу неъмати зиндаги хастанд… Вой бар холи мардуми камбагал, бовар кунед, кариб ки нони хурдан надоранд,

The British journal has a very good assessment of the situation in Tajikistan. Almost 99 percent of state officials in the country are corrupt. Otherwise, how is it possible with a Tajik state salary to purchase apartments and cars that cost from 50,000 to 100,000 US dollars? With a state salary alone, not a single employee at the prosecutor’s office, court, police or a similar agency could afford this. Yet these employees have almost everything they wish. As for the poor people, they find it difficult even to find their daily bread.

Can corruption that enables narcotics trade be fought effectively? One reader thinks more control is needed:

Ravshan_1980: Я думаю, что необходимо заставить наших чиновников предоставлять налоговые декларации и объяснять откуда у них автомобили и дома.

I think state officials should be required to submit tax declarations and explain where they get the money to buy cars and houses.

Another reader believes that narcotics trafficking is almost impossible to fight because corrupt officials involved in the trade are closely tied to the government.

Мохира: Проблема в том, что наши правоохранительные органы – на всех уровнях – крышуют наркобизнес и живут за его счет. Эти же органы являются фундаментом нынешнего режима. Лишение правоохранительных органов денег, которые они получают за крышевание преступности, означало бы разрушение фундамента нынешнего режима. Все взаимосвязано.

Mohira: The real problem is that our law-enforcement agencies at all levels provide the protection for drugs smugglers and live at their expense. These agencies serve as the foundation of the incumbent regime. Taking away the money that law-enforcement agencies make from drugs trade would mean destroying the very foundation of the regime. Everything is interconnected.

A high-level Tajik anti-narcotics official has recently acknowledged [4] [ru] that “not a single narcotics trafficking group can operate without support from senior public servants” in the country. In February 2012, the authorities announced [5] a number of high-profile arrests on corruption and narcotics-trafficking charges. Yet there is little indication that these developments represent a serious and long-term effort by the government.

In a report [6] (pdf) released this month, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 75 to 80 tons of Afghan-made heroin and 18 to 20 tons of opium pass through Tajikistan annually. This means that about 200 kilograms of heroin and 50 kilograms of opium enter the country every day. Only a tiny fraction of this amount is seized. The report also notes that many senior officials are either directly involved in the trade or take bribes to look the other way. According to the UNODC, much of the $1.4 billion made from heroin trade in Central Asia in 2010 went to Tajik traffickers. The report notes:

Drug money is fueling abnormally high property prices in Dushanbe and in the provinces. Other signs of great wealth are visible, including lavish houses and vehicles that are well beyond the means of the public servants who own them.