Dirty Entanglements on the New Silk Road

Drugs, Corruption, and Crime in Central Asia

The merchants that used the famous Silk Road that stretched from China to Constantinople encountered the fierce tribes of Central Asia. The Han government derived considerable profit from this route, and when it was threatened by these Central Asian tribes who pillaged caravans, the Chinese used force, treaties, and heavy reprisals to regain control. Security concerns ensured that caravans rarely traveled without armed protection. Yet perils remained for millennia for those who navigated this famous route because of the value of the diverse cargo that traversed Asia.

Today, the expansion of connections across Asia may bring some development opportunities to Central Asia, but perils remain because the new silk road is a conduit for many illicit forms of trade. As I showed in a map in my book, Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime and Terrorism, the present-day drug trade follows very similar routes to that of the historic silk road. The drugs that pass across Central Asia contribute to the drug epidemic in Russia but also contribute to the new opioid epidemic in the United States, as Afghanistan is a major source of drugs consumed in the U.S. Just as in the past, Central Asian rulers derive considerable profits from the valuable commodities that traverse the trade routes of their countries. Once that valuable commodity was silk and textiles; today it is the drug trade.

Uzbek-born organized crime figures are important figures in post-Soviet organized criminal activity and are linked to the state. One of them, Gafur Rakhimov, named as a drug kingpin by the U.S. Treasury Department, was presented a national medal by the late President Karimov. This award reflects the close ties that existed between the corrupt Uzbek leader and organized crime, a problem that has not ended with Karimov’s death. Another reputed organized crime leader, Salimbay Adbullaev, is the new deputy chief of Uzbekistan’s National Olympic Committee under Karimov’s successor, revealing the continuing links between the crime figures that control the drug trade and national rulers.

The problem is not confined to Uzbekistan. Tajikistan sits at the crossroads of one of the most active drug trafficking routes in the world. Despite the quantity of drugs that flow through the country, there have been very few arrests of government officials for either corruption or drug trafficking although there is complicity of officials in the drug trade at all levels of the state apparatus. Kyrgyzstan also has numerous criminal actors profiting from the drug trade, often through collusion with corrupt government officials.

Drugs for Central Asia have become like the “natural resource curse” for oil-rich countries. The easy profits made by the leadership of many Central Asian countries from the drug trade serve as a disincentive to invest in their countries’ economic and human capacity. Many of the poorest countries in Central Asia are now suffering from a population bulge with men entering the labor force without adequate education and a paucity of legitimate employment. Therefore, the connectivity across Central Asia results in two further problems. Young men, in the absence of legitimate employment, are forced to work in the illicit economy—smuggling drugs and other goods. Or they are forced to migrate to the more affluent countries of the former Soviet Union, where they are often illegal and forced to work in the shadow economy. The recent decline of the Russian economy and the longer-term decline of the Ukrainian economy have depressed the wages and work conditions of men who are searching for work outside of Central Asia.

Drugs, human smuggling, and illegal migration will remain crucial elements of life and the economy in Central Asia in the coming years, a problem only amplified by the new Silk Road. The corruption of these countries, which fall among the lowest scorers in the world on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, does not augur for any positive change in the coming years.

Dr. Louise Shelley is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Endowed Chair and the Director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.