Narcotics trafficking and drug addition have long been hidden scourges in Turkmenistan, Central Asia's most insular state. But President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has sent signals in recent weeks that his administration is pondering ways to tackle drug-related issues.
The clearest indicator of a shift in the Turkmen government's attitude came on World AIDS Day, December 1, when a variety of state agencies hosted an informational event, titled Unite for Future! Unite Against AIDS and Drugs!, at a theater in central Ashgabat. Printed matter on the hazards of diseases associated with drug additction, especially AIDS, were available for distribution. The materials were a collaborative effort produced by the Turkmen Health Ministry, the National Red Crescent Society and the Youth Center of Turkmenistan.
Though modest in its scope, the event underscored the fact that Berdymukhamedov's administration is taking tentative steps toward addressing what is one of the country's most daunting social challenges. During the last session of Turkmenistan's old parliament, held before fresh elections on December 14, some outgoing MPs expressed concern about the dangers of narcotics trafficking, as well as the high public health social costs exacted by drug addiction.
Turkmen citizens will tell enquiring foreigners that drug use is prevalent in Ashgabat and that addicts are responsible for many serious crimes, including robberies and even murders. Addiction likewise encourages other forms of criminal behavior, especially prostitution, as young Turkmen women sell their bodies in order to maintain drug habits. "Unemployement is so high, often men are ashamed and start to use heroin," said one Turkmen man, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Most of the narcotics that pass through Turkmenistan are cultivated in neighboring Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Under Turkmenistan's former leader Saparmurat Niyazov, narcotics was a taboo topic. Berdymukhamedov, however, is gradually lifting the veil of silence.
Underscoring Berdymukhamedov's determination to address the issue, during his November visit to Germany and Austria, he met in Vienna with Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office for Drugs and Crime. The two men discussed measures to counter "illicit drug trafficking and patrol of the state border," the official government website, Turkmenistan: The Golden Age, reported. Last January, Costa visited Ashgabat, urging Berdymukhamedov to establish a state drug control agency.
"A few days after [the meeting with Costa], an agency existed," recalled a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are now about to build a center to train police officers, dog handlers, etc. Obviously, Berdymukhamedov wants to do something."
The new State Service for Combatting Drugs is headed by Murat Islamov, an appointment that was generally cheered in Western capitals. "He is a true professionnal, educated in Ashkhabat and Moscow. He has a clever mind, open and really competent," a Western expert in Turkmenistan said.
Several factors are encouraging Berdymukhamedov to confront narcotics-related issues. On the surface, the crime and health consequences of trafficking and drug use are a sufficient cause to compel the government to act. In addition, Berdymukhamedov's own background in the health field appears to be injecting a personal element into the decision-making calculus; as a medical professional himself, the president does not want to be seen as ignoring a dire threat to public health. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Finally, there is also the matter of international prestige. Berdymukhamedov is anxious to gain wider international acceptance for Turkmenistan, and he realizes that such recognition will not be forthcoming as long as Ashgabat does not address drug-related issues.
Observers believe it could take a while before Turkmenistan can tackle trafficking. First of all, there are still a significant number of officials who are reluctant to admit that Turkmenistan has problems with the narcotics trade and/or drug addiction. That reticence may be explained in part because of widespread official corruption. A certain segment of officialdom might be reluctant to tackle drug trafficking because they themselves may be profiting from it. In its most recent survey on corruption, the watchdog group Transparency International ranked Turkmenistan as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. [For additional information click here].
It also appears that it will be some time before Turkmenistan has enough qualified anti-drug officers to handle the job of curbing traffickers. The new state ant-trafficking agnecy is reportedly having difficulty finding recruits. In early 2008, the agency sought to add 200 officers, but so far it has only about 60. The United States and other Western countries have provided Ashgabat with technolgy to combat trafficking, but much of the equipment still lacks properly trained personnel to operate the devices. In addition to learning how to use counter-narcotics technology, Turkmen officials will need to boost cooperation and information sharing with neighboring states, including Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. However, relations between Ashgabat and Tashkent have often been tense over the past decade. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
James Delly is a pseudonym for a correspondent who specializes in Central Asian affairs.