South Caucasus: Region Growing As Hub For Int’l Drug Trafficking

Radio Free Europe, Czech Republic
March 9 2004

South Caucasus: Region Growing As Hub For International Drug
By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Central Asia is known as the preferred route for Afghan-produced
narcotics destined for West European markets. But drug-enforcement
officials say the South Caucasus — strategically located between
Asia and Europe — is also a major transit point for narcotics.
Corruption, instability, and separatist conflicts are all cited as
being behind the region’s rise in smuggling.

Prague, 9 March 2004 (RFE/RL) — On 1 March, the U.S. State
Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement
Affairs (INL) released its annual review of progress in the global
fight against drug trafficking.

The INL’s “International Narcotics Control Strategy Report” praises
recent efforts made by the three South Caucasus republics of Armenia,
Azerbaijan, and Georgia in curbing illicit drug trade. The three
nations are all signatories of the three existing United Nations
drug-control conventions. Since 2001 they have been engaged in the
UN-sponsored Southern Caucasus Anti-Drug program, also known as SCAD.
In addition, all three have taken steps to curb trafficking and
prevent domestic drug use.

Armenia last year implemented a law on narcotics and psychotropic
substances and is currently working on a draft bill to combat money
laundering. Also last year, then-Georgian President Eduard
Shevardnadze signed into law an anti-laundering bill that was
strengthened last month by the country’s new leadership. Azerbaijan
is currently working on a similar legal package that could be
approved by parliament by the end of this year.

“The money that is generated by drug smuggling is being used to
purchase weapons and ammunition. It also serves to finance these
separatist regimes.”Yet, the INL believes a lot more remains for
these countries to do in the fight against drug trafficking,
especially since they are located in an area that is an important
transit route for illicit trade to Western Europe. The U.S. agency
expresses particular concern regarding Azerbaijan, which it says has
emerged as a drug-trafficking hub after armed conflicts in former
Yugoslavia disrupted traditional routes linking Iran to Western
Europe via Turkey and the Balkans.

International experts believe heroin represents up to 80 percent of
the illicit drugs transited through the region. Opium and marijuana
are also smuggled.

Mezahir Efendiyev is Azerbaijan’s national coordinator for the SCAD
program. He told RFE/RL a number of factors are contributing to the
region’s emergence as a major drug-trafficking route. “If one takes
into account, on the one hand, the fact that the three South Caucasus
countries are geographically located between Asia and Europe and, on
the other hand, the fact that the CIS states represent a major market
for heroin, it is natural that this route should suit the drug
mafias,” he said. “This route, which originates in Afghanistan and
goes to Europe through the South Caucasus and the rest of the CIS, is
a very easy one. In addition, these countries acceded to independence
roughly 10 years ago and they lack the modern technology that would
enable them to prevent drug transit through the South Caucasus area.”

Pavel Pachta works with the International Narcotics Control Board
(INCB), a Vienna-based body that monitors implementation of UN drug
conventions worldwide. He says the industrial South Caucasus area —
which lies at the crossroads of the so-called Balkan Route and its
sister “Silk Road Route” linking Afghanistan to Europe through
Central Asia — is important not only as a transit point for drugs,
but also as a potential provider of chemicals for Afghan-based heroin

“The countries of the Caucasus are very close to these routes and,
undoubtedly, there have been and there are attempts to use [them] for
smuggling. On the one hand, drugs are coming from Afghanistan to the
markets where there is a demand for them. On the other hand,
chemicals are going in the [opposite] direction, because to
manufacture heroin you need chemicals — for example, acetic
anhydride — and these chemicals are smuggled into Afghanistan,”
Pachta said.

The INCB, which released its own annual report on 3 March, notes
Afghanistan’s production of opiates increased by 8 percent last year.
The report blames authorities in neighboring Turkmenistan — a major
transit point for Afghan-made narcotics — for failing to cooperate
with the international community in the fight against drug

International experts say Afghan-produced drugs reach Azerbaijan, the
easternmost of the Caucasus republics, through two main routes. One
goes directly through Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea. Another
crosses the 611-kilometer-long land border between Azerbaijan and
Iran. A third suspected route is the flight path recently opened
between Kabul and Baku, although the INL says there is so far no
evidence to support that theory.

Widespread corruption and the various armed conflicts that have
plagued the South Caucasus since the late 1980s both contribute to
making the region a haven for illicit trafficking. Georgia and
Azerbaijan have each lost at least a quarter of their territory to
separatist conflicts. Drug-enforcement officials say the
self-proclaimed governments now leading these breakaway regions are
suspected of profiteering from illegal trade, including drug
trafficking. Authorities in Azerbaijan claim the breakaway enclave of
Nagorno-Karabakh has become not only a favored transit route for
drugs smuggled from Iran, but also a major heroin production center.

Mezahir Efendiyev of the UN-sponsored SCAD program says international
drug experts have been barred from Karabakh by local rulers, and are
thus unable to verify these claims. He also says a significant
section of Azerbaijan’s southern border has been under the control of
ethnic Armenian troops for the past decade, making it even more
difficult for the Azerbaijani government to fight drug trafficking
from Iran.

Paata Nozadze is SCAD’s national coordinator for Georgia. He says
separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have created
similar problems for the central government in Tbilisi. “These
so-called hot spots, or uncontrolled areas, perfectly suit drug
traffickers,” he said. “The money that is generated by drug smuggling
is being used to purchase weapons and ammunition. It also serves to
finance these separatist regimes. This situation perfectly suits drug
traffickers because all they have to do is strike a deal with local
governments. Elsewhere they would have to make separate arrangements
with border guards, customs officers, policemen, or state security
officials. For them these conflict zones are much more advantageous.”

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on 11 February described
Abkhazia as a drug-trafficking corridor, prompting a swift protest
from the separatist leadership in Sukhum.

Also last month, the recently elected South Caucasus leader — who
based his campaign on pledges to fight crime and corruption —
launched a security sweep to disarm Georgian guerrillas based in the
western Samegrelo (Mingrelia) region, an area that borders Abkhazia.
The so-called Forest Brothers group is suspected of controlling
smuggling activities in the area in conjunction with Abkhaz groups
and Russian peacekeepers posted on the other side of the demarcation
line that separates the province from the rest of Georgia.

Narcotics reach Georgia from Azerbaijan, South Ossetia, Turkey, and,
to a lesser extent, from Armenia. A report prepared in 2002 for the
Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency says illicit
drugs are then transited either through Abkhazia, the Black Sea port
of Poti, or Batumi, the capital of the autonomous region of Adjaria.
>From there, they travel on to Ukraine and Romania.

Only a small percentage of illegal drugs transiting through the South
Caucasus region are seized by law enforcement agencies.

In Azerbaijan, which for two years has been receiving U.S.
counternarcotics assistance through the Freedom Support Act, the
Interior Ministry last year conducted a nationwide operation against
drug traffickers and local producers of poppy and cannabis plants.

SCAD program coordinator Efendiyev says that although Azerbaijan has
shown some progress in combating drug trafficking, it still has a
long way to go. “Only 10 to 15 percent of drugs that go through
Azerbaijan are seized by our law enforcement agencies,” he said. “In
2003, they seized over 211 kilograms of narcotic substances and
destroyed more than 290 [tons] of narcotic plants. By comparison, no
plantations were destroyed in Armenia and, in Georgia, only 34 tons
were destroyed.”

This month’s report by the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law
Enforcement Affairs notes that although corruption permeates
Azerbaijan’s law enforcement sector, there is no evidence that local
police officers are participating in the illicit production or
distribution of narcotics. By contrast, in neighboring Georgia, a
number of police officers were recently arrested and charged with
involvement in the narcotics trade.

The amount of drugs seized in that country remains particularly low.
Georgia’s SCAD coordinator Paata Nozadze told RFE/RL: “The figures
for 2003 are very small. They include only 3 kilograms of heroin, 8.3
kilograms of opium, and 42.4 kilograms of marijuana. This is all that
has officially been seized. This is very little.” The Georgian expert
believes a lack of coordination among the agencies involved in the
antinarcotics fight could explain why the amount of illegal drugs
seized in the country is so small.

But there could be other reasons. A number of counternarcotics
officials and policemen suspected of involvement in illicit trade
activities were recently arrested in Georgia. This suggests that
large volumes of contraband drugs are being unofficially seized,
diverted and resold on the fast-expanding local black market.

Official statistics say there are just 18,000 drug users in Georgia,
a country of roughly 4 million. But independent experts believe the
actual number of drug consumers in that country is somewhere between
100,000 and 300,000.