Diagnosing Central Asia’s Drug Problem

The Real Drivers Are Poverty and Corruption, Not Infrastructure

Central Asia is becoming an increasingly open trading area. China launched its “One Belt, One Road” initiative (OBOR) in 2013, with plans for massive investment and substantial development of the transport infrastructure in the region. Moreover, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been integrated, along with Russia, Armenia, and Belarus, into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a free trade zone without border controls; Tajikistan also may soon join the EEU.

Greater connectivity and the development of free trade zones, despite their promise of economic benefit, have sometimes been criticized as opening the door to an increase in illicit trafficking, and particularly of drugs. This concern has been considered in the context of many economic zones (including the American continent and the European Union), and now is being looked at as a possible concern for Central Asia as well. The concern is heightened as this region neighbors Afghanistan, the world’s largest opium and heroin producer, and is, therefore, an ideal transit route for illicit drugs to China, Russia, and Europe, now among the world’s biggest illicit drug markets. The opening of internal borders in the Eurasian space, and the current and future development of transport infrastructure, certainly will open up new opportunities for traffickers. Once they cross the Kazakh or Kyrgyz border, they can carry their shipment to the gates of Europe without being subjected to any serious control.

However, studies carried out in several regions of the world, including the American continent, show that “greater openness to trade does not have a consistently significant effect on the prohibition capabilities of states in drug transit countries.” Central Asia will likely not be an exception. Illicit drug trafficking in Central Asia did not wait for the opening of a common economic space or for the development of road or railway infrastructure. Rather, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been a tremendous increase in both trafficking and drug use throughout the region. The main causes of the development of drug trafficking are to be found elsewhere.

First, trafficking has been facilitated by the ineffectiveness of border controls. The length of the external borders of Central Asia (1,300 miles with Afghanistan, and more than 4,000 miles with Russia), the geographic difficulties of controlling them, including due to their mountainous nature (particularly between Afghanistan and Tajikistan), and the lack of training and equipping of border guards – despite international assistance – have made the border porous. However, the EEU could serve to focus border management efforts on external borders, in particular with Afghanistan, through cooperation among its members, and thereby organize more effective border control efforts, which hitherto have been dispersed over too large a space.

Second, illicit drug trafficking in Central Asia has, to a large extent, been fueled by the corruption and complicity of security forces. Research in the region shows that some law enforcement officials actually oversee trafficking rings, turn over drugs seized during arrests to traffickers, and sometimes provide protection to dealers. This has become almost public knowledge in Tajikistan, where dealers operate in plain view of the authorities. Tajikistan’s highest state structures, as well as the presidential family, are themselves suspected of being among the main beneficiaries of this trafficking. Consequently, efforts to secure or close borders have not had a significant impact, as some state structures have not shown the necessary political will to fight drug trafficking.

Finally, the current economic and social crisis in some Central Asian states appears to be stimulating drug trafficking. A growing number of individuals – men, women, and children – have been willing to transport drugs, either for themselves or for organized networks, in order to meet their basic needs. Poverty also contributes to corruption among underpaid civil servants in societies where corruption is socially criticized but “accepted” as a channel of redistribution and survival. This may be why the allegedly tight border controls of highly-policed states, such as Turkmenistan, have never been able to significantly reduce drug trafficking.

Whatever the extent of border controls, and with or without the new development of transport infrastructure, it is likely that illicit drug trafficking will continue to grow in the region, spurred by poverty and bureaucratic corruption. It is to be hoped, however, that the development of more open trade policies with and among Central Asian states will contribute to economic development in a region long slowed down by the isolationist policies of some of its governments (in particular Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), as well as to increased employment and reduced social problems.

The real challenge for fighting the illicit drug trade in Central Asia, therefore, stems less from the supposed risks associated with opening borders or developing transport infrastructure, than from dealing with poverty and corruption. What will be crucial is the political will of the governments in Central Asia to tackle corruption and institute real reforms, as well as the capacity of international assistance – especially from China’s OBOR program and the EEU – to deliver to Central Asia real socio-economic benefits, and thereby reduce drug trafficking in the long term.

Dr. Sebastien Peyrouse is a Research Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.