Lucrative heroin trade lurks in background of ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan

By Peter Leonard, AP
Thursday, June 24, 2010

Heroin trade a backdrop to Kyrgyz violence

JALAL-ABAD, Kyrgyzstan — This Central Asian nation where ethnic violence exploded in the south this month sits on a heroin road that snakes from Afghanistan to Western Europe.

It creates a nexus of power and profit that some say may have contributed to the conditions leading to the rioting that may have left thousands dead and a million in need of humanitarian aid.

Few suggest that drug money lay at the root of the unrest. But it is widely seen as a source of violent struggles between powerful rival groups in Kyrgyzstan — with recently deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his family some of the biggest players.

Bakiyev’s supporters have been accused by the interim government of sparking the unrest in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in an effort to destabilize the nation. Officials and analysts say their role in the drug trade also means they stand to benefit from creating chaos in the south.

“The battle for power is also a battle for drug money,” Kyrgyz deputy security service chief Khubat Baibulov told The Associated Press. “The violence of this battle increases when you are talking about big money.”

U.N. officials say the violence that broke out two weeks ago was intentionally provoked and risked shattering the fragile interim government. The narcotics trade is only one strand in a complex set of factors behind Kyrgyzstan’s turmoil, but with big money at stake it is likely to frustrate any hopes of restoring stability to the impoverished, strategically located nation.

The unrest began in the wake of a popular revolt in April that led to the overthrow of Bakiyev and sent members of his family scrambling for refuge from Kyrgyz prosecutors.

Authorities and analysts have little doubt that Bakiyev and his relatives are at the heart of the drug trade.

“The whole Bakiyev family is involved in drug trafficking,” said Alexander Knyazev, a respected independent political analyst in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital.

“After Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power, all drug lords were killed, and (his elder brother) Zhanybek Bakiyev consolidated most of the drug trafficking in his hands.”

Acting deputy prime minister and general prosecutor Azimbek Beknazarov also endorses the view that Bakiyev and his family have interests in the drug trade, although no specific criminal probes have yet been initiated into those allegations.

Heroin is transported to the south of Kyrgyzstan by a series of remote mountain routes. One road leads from a Tajik town on the Afghan border, Khorog, over the vast and rough terrain of the Pamir Mountains, across the border and then down to Osh. Another route goes from northern Tajikistan across the frontier into the Kyrgyz section of the Ferghana Valley, where Osh lies.

Those roads are daily traversed by trucks carrying fruit and vegetables, which are frequently used to disguise large amounts of drugs. Rampant corruption also ensures that much of the contraband is not intercepted, meaning that seizures account for only a tiny fraction of the total amount trafficked.

An estimated 20 metric tons of Afghan drugs transit through Kyrgyzstan every year, most destined for Russia, Western Europe and the United States, according to a U.S. State Department report released in March.

More than a quarter of Kyrgyzstan’s population lives under the poverty line and average monthly salaries are estimated by officials to hover around the $140 mark.

Low incomes and poor labor prospects have made the drug trade an appealing option for Kyrgyz people living in rural areas ever since the collapse of Soviet Union robbed the country of direct financial support from Moscow. And with Afghan poppy production ever on the increase, much of the increased narcotics flow has been made up of heroin.

Drug trafficking was a problem before Bakiyev came to power five years ago. But far from seeking to counter this rise in the illegal traffic, Bakiyev seemed only to have weakened the campaign by the disbanding of the relatively successful Drug Control Agency in October.

The move to place policing drugs under the tutelage of the Interior Ministry was described by the U.S. State Department as a “significant blow to regional counternarcotics efforts,” and provoked suspicions about the Bakiyev government’s role in the drug trade.

Former President Askar Akayev, who was himself toppled in the Tulip Revolution in 2005, maintains that Bakiyev gave drug lords in the country significant leeway in exchange for their support in bringing him to power.

“The criminals stayed on to serve the Bakiyevs, to hunt down unwanted politicians and journalists,” Akayev told The Associated Press in Moscow, referring to a string of contract-style killings of opposition leaders and independent reporters.

Bakiyev’s brothers Zhanybek and Akhmat “directly controlled the drug trade and all the top criminals,” Akayev said.

Although criticized for his corrupt rule, Akayev is recognized to have made some attempts at minimizing the influence of the drug trade on his country’s economy.

Hoping to reverse the damage done by abolishing the Drug Control Agency, set up under Akayev in 2003 and part funded by the United Nation and the United States, interim President Roza Otunbayeva last week announced the body would be reconstituted.

“The drug route passes along the Great Silk Road, but unfortunately today we all are busy with issues of regulation, humanitarian assistance, attempts to provide shelter for all, and so on, but drug barons are working at full capacity,” Otunbayeva said. “That is why we are going to restore the national anti-narcotics agency, which Bakiyev recently disbanded.”

Restoring drug combat operations may help to partially stem the tidal wave of drugs washing through the country, but persistent political instability and violence will prove fatal to the success of those efforts.

Quelling public unrest in Kyrgyzstan has often meant having to making compromises with local powerbrokers, who in turn frequently have interests allied to criminal groups.

That proposition seems to be at the heart of government claims that Bakiyev and his associates may have played a role in instigating ethnic riots, by hiring attackers to shoot at both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who have a history of ethnic tensions. Bakiyev, who is living in exile in Belarus, denies all involvement in the events.

The United Nations bolstered the claims by declaring that the fighting was “targeted and well-planned,” and appeared to have begun with five simultaneous attacks in Osh by men wearing ski masks. The United States is urging an impartial international investigation into how the clashes were provoked.

Kyrgyzstan’s security agency claimed Thursday that Bakiyev’s relatives hired Islamic militants to provoke the ethnic violence following a meeting in Afghanistan last month with representatives of the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other groups. The agency provided no evidence.

Kyrgyzstan hosts the U.S. Manas air base, a key support center for the fight against the Taliban that is used by most troops entering or leaving Afghanistan.

The United States has been stung by the accusation that its military campaign in Afghanistan has inadvertently boosted the fortunes of heroin poppy cultivation there. The suggestion that it may have benefited strategically from cooperation with a Kyrgyz government involved in the drug trade is likely to come as a further embarrassment.

Two State Department officials with knowledge of the region, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they are aware of the allegations against the Bakiyevs, but had no independent corroboration. The Drug Enforcement Agency refused to comment.

Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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