Even in the best of times, the Azerbaijani government is not a talkative bunch. But their stone-wall silence after northern neighbor Georgia triumphantly confiscated roughly $175-million worth of liquid heroin on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border has sparked questions about the reasons for their reserve.
On July 11, Georgian border police found a record 2.79 tons of liquid heroin inside 93 30-kilogram containers of handwash conveyed by a cargo-truck from Azerbaijan to Georgia. A video released by the Georgian interior ministry shows that the containers bore Georgian flags and the inscription “Georgia Clean.” The cargo truck displays a slightly blurred name of “GB” or “G3” and the marking “Internationale Spedition.”
In a July-25 statement to a Georgian parliamentary committee, Georgian Interior Minister Aleksandre Chikaidze claimed that the shipment belonged to Afghanistan’s Taliban, who, he alleged, had financed its dispatch to Europe, the news magazine Tabula reported. Two Georgian citizens have been detained in connection with the shipment.
Chikaidze earlier had claimed that the stash had traveled from Afghanistan via Iran to Azerbaijan, and was headed to Turkey and on into Europe. Citiing an ongoing investigation, he declined to comment further.
Azerbaijan and Georgia’s status as part of a narcotics corridor from Afghanistan and Iran to Europe long has been established. Both countries cooperate with the United Nations and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to crack down on international trafficking rings.
In the first nine months of 2012, the latest year for which information is available, Azerbaijan confiscated a total of over 654 kilograms of narcotics, according to the US State Department, citing Azerbaijani government data.
That past record –which has earned praise from the State Department – prompts some Azerbaijanis to wonder how the heroin managed to make it past the Azerbaijani border control and into Georgia.
But Azerbajani officials aren’t talking.
In comments to EurasiaNet.org, Azerbaijani State Border Control Service spokesperson Elhan Nagiyev said that his agency had “no such information” about the seizure of liquid heroin on the Azerbaijani-Georgian border. “The Georgian law-enforcement bodies did not apply to us” for assistance with this mission, he added.
Spokespeople for the Azerbaijani State Customs Committee, Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of National Security also declined to comment.
One local drug-trafficking expert, however, believes that the Azerbaijani government must have cooperated with Georgian officials on this drug bust.
“Such operations are being prepared for months and involve a network of secret agents,” said Mazahir Efendiyev, Azerbaijan’s national coordinator for the United Nations’ South Caucasus Anti-Drug Programme.
Citing unnamed government sources, the pro-opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat has alleged that Georgian Interior Minister Chikaidze discussed details about the operation with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Interior Minister Ramil Usubov and State Border Control Chief Elchin Guliyev during a May 13-16 official visit to Baku.
At the time, Azerbaijani media reported that Chikaidze had discussed “border issues.”
If the Yeni Musavat report is accurate, some observers wonder why Baku does not acknowledge its success publicly, together with Georgia.
The US State Department’s 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report estimates that “up to 11 metric tons” of narcotics, much of it from neighboring Iran, travel through Azerbaijan each year. As Turkey tightens its own border controls, Azerbaijan could become “an increasingly favored transit country for drugs . . .,” the report posited.
News about a liquid-heroin drug bust by Azerbaijan and Georgia would serve to reinforce the message that Baku takes this threat seriously.
But Efendiyev claims that perhaps Baku decided to stay quiet to let Georgia, “a friendly country,” gain the limelight and enhance its own domestic political prestige. Tbilisi’s announcement about the heroin bust occurred two days before run-off local elections in Georgia, a vote which the government’s Georgian Dream coalition won.
Ex-counterintelligence officer Arastun Orujlu, director of the pro-opposition East-West Research Center, sees another possible reason for Baku’s silence, however.
“[E]ither Azerbaijan’s border control or customs do not do their jobs properly or . . . these [drug] syndicates have strong patrons in these bodies,” alleged Orujlu.
The National Council of Democratic Forces, a bloc of Azerbaijan’s largest opposition parties, has echoed that allegation, condemning the government for saying nothing about the heroin operation, but making “very loud” announcements about the arrest of “civil-society activists on false drug-possession charges.”
The government has not responded. Efendiyev dismisses any discussion about ties between drug traffickers and Azerbaijani officials, noting that the country has confiscated “more than 10 tons” of narcotics since 2007.
Yet despite that vigilance, he added, “of course, regional drug syndicates have their presence in the country.”
The US embassy in Baku did not respond to requests for comment about any possible role by the US DEA in the detection of the liquid-heroin shipment.
The State Department wrote in its International Narcotics Control Strategy Report that the DEA, which has trained Azerbaijani state employees in anti-narcotics work, “helped Azerbaijan pursue international drug trafficking organizations in 2013.”
It noted that Baku has provided “tremendous cooperation” in combating drug-trafficking, and said that it expects “that this support will continue.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku.