Karabakh Rejects Drug Claims

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
March 18 2004

Karabakh Rejects Drug Claims

Allegation made to the UN that Nagorny Karabakh is used as narcotics
route is angrily denied by the Armenians.

By Ashot Beglarian in Stepanakert (CRS No. 223, 18-Mar-04)

The Armenian authorities in Nagorny Karabakh have invited
international officials to come and monitor the territories they
control, after allegations from Azerbaijan that the region is a
transit corridor for the drugs trade.

The issue cropped up this week at a Vienna meeting of the United
Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs. One item on the agenda proposed
that, `The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in coordination
with the appropriate organs of the United Nations system, Interpol
and other international organisations should be invited to study the
drugs situation in the territories outside the control of the
legitimate governments of the countries in the region (Afghanistan,
Iraq and the Nagorny Karabakh region of Azerbaijan).’

In response, Masis Mailian, deputy foreign minister of the
unrecognised republic of Nagorny Karabakh told IWPR that his
government was happy to welcome an independent international
monitoring group to visit all of the territory it controlled – both
Karabakh itself and the Armenian-occupied territories around it.

`The group must include truly independent international experts who
would conduct an objective investigation,’ said Mailian.

Azerbaijan claims that Nagorny Karabakh and the surrounding lands
under Armenian control have become a transit point for narcotics on
the `southern route’ of the heroin trade, that originates in
Afghanistan and passes through Iran on its way to Europe. It says the
long stretch of border along the Araxes river between Iran and the
empty lands controlled by the Karabakh Armenians is entirely
unmonitored, and is therefore a good entry point for drug

Ali Hassanov, chairman of Azerbaijan’s State Commission to Combat
Drug Abuse and Illegal Trafficking, said the main problem his
commission faced was `the uncontrolled territories occupied by
Armenia, where narcotics are cultivated, and through which they are

However, Karabakh Armenian official Mailian challenged anyone to
provide evidence of this, noting that the US State Department’s
International Narcotics Control Strategy Report published on March 1
this year failed even to mention Nagorny Karabakh, while stating that
Azerbaijan is one of the main transit routes for international

IWPR also asked the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC. in Vienna
whether it had evidence of Karabakh being used as a transit point.
The response was that UNODC had no available evidence, although a
change of personnel in its Tehran office meant it was unable to check
fully with its sources in Iran.

The Karabakh Armenian authorities say that, on the contrary, they
have been waging a persistent campaign against the cultivation of
opium poppies and wild cannabis that used to grow in Karabakh.

Locals now admit that the territory suffered from a drug problem
during the war of 1991-94, but they say that this has now been
brought under control.

`The problem of cultivating narcotic plants was particularly
difficult during the war, in 1992-1993,’ said one villager. `You
should have seen the care – that should have been put to better use –
with which some people grew poppies. There’s nothing surprising about
that – the plant is easier and cheaper to grow, and profits from
selling it are much higher, than many other plants, vegetables and
fruits.’ He explained that drugs were sometimes bartered for flour,
sugar and other items that were then in short supply

When fighting was still going on in 1993, the police force launched
their first operation Mak (Poppy), which has been repeated every year
since then in Karabakh and the surrounding territories. On average up
to five tons of wild cannabis and up to 15 kilos of unprocessed opium
poppies are found and destroyed each year.

`Two years running, in 1993 and 1994, I was involved in Mak
operations as part of various internal affairs ministry groups,’
Albert Voskanian, a retired lieutenant colonel in the police, told
IWPR. `We searched through all the regions, all the fields and garden
plots where opium poppy could possibly be grown. We began the
operation at a time when the poppies were almost ready, but it was
still too early to harvest. We uprooted the plants that we found,
registered them in a report and took them away to burn.

`Many owners were reluctant to give up the harvest voluntarily, and
there were cases of resistance. The operation was so important that
some troops were called in from the front to assist.’

Voskanian said that in the first year the owners of plantations were
not punished, only warned. This proved to be effective – there was
much less cannabis and poppy during the second year.

Slavik Gasparian, another veteran of these operations, also says they
were broadly very successful. `During the war I served as a senior
sergeant in a unit of the Karabakh army and I knew about all the
operations to destroy poppy and cannabis plantations. I can say just
one thing – the joint efforts of the law enforcement forces, army and
other agencies produced an excellent result. At least after 1995,
people were afraid to grow even one poppy plant openly.’

Karabakh’s interior ministry says that in 1998-2003, the authorities
uncovered 156 drug-related crimes, half of which were related to
cultivating illegal narcotic plants and the rest to the illegal
purchase, possession and abuse of drugs. It says that drug-related
crimes comprise only five per cent of all offences.

Representatives of the penal institutions of Nagorny Karabakh said
that interior ministry doctors provide compulsory treatment for all
drug addicts in custody.

Sociologist David Sarkisian said that some Karabakhis experimented
with cannabis, but there was a strong social taboo against drug
taking as a whole in society.

`There are no objective preconditions for the wide dissemination of
drugs and drug abuse in Nagorny Karabakh,’ Sarkisian said. `Our
society categorically rejects drug addicts, considering them the most
degraded members of society – worse than even the most miserable
drunkards. Many young people try cannabis and other weed either out
of curiosity or from a mistaken idea of self-assertion.’

The more controversial matter of whether drugs are passing through
Karabakh from Iran will remain disputed as long as there is no
verdict from international agencies. The UN has so far not decided
whether to send a delegation to the region to study the claims.

Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert.