By Ryskeldi Satke

South Kyrgyzstan has been a conduit for drug trafficking from Afghanistan and it remains a hub in delivering opium and heroin to Russia and Europe. A 2014 US Congressional research report on global smuggling operations indicated that 25% of all of drugs from Afghanistan cross through Central Asia.

The number of drug users in Kyrgyzstan has doubled in the last ten years, according to the EU Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction report and a US State Department briefing last year. The concern in the West and among international aid agencies has taken the form of more assistance to Central Asia’s weakest states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as it has become apparent that these republics may fail in the absence of government reforms.

Afghan poppy field

Despite improvements by the government of Kyrgyzstan in promoting transparency and innovations in stopping the spread of drug abuse in the last decade, structural issues remain unsolved. The large number of drug addicts in this Central Asian nation remains a concern among experts. A 2006 study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded that the Kyrgyz Republic has 26,000 drug users of whom 25,000 are injecting users.

Likewise, independent research by the AIDS Project Management Group in Tajikistan has pegged the number of injecting drug users in that country at about 25,000 in 2009. Neither UNODC or other international agencies have updated their drug addiction figures for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan since. Central Asian medics believe that a real figure is unknown and likely higher.

Tatiana Borisova, the deputy director of Kyrgyzstan’s Narcology Center, says that lack of funding prevents her organization from conducting research and assessment on the size of the so-called “closed group” in the country. She says that a “closed group” is composed of young drug addicts who prefer to remain anonymous.

“We don’t know what is the approximate estimate of ‘closed group’ because they don’t come to us. The ones who are registered have been with us since our treatment program launched in 2002” added Borisova.

Indeed, the majority of drug users in South Kyrgyzstan are in their 30s and 40s, while younger users keep using drugs anonymously, said Kyzjibek Sydykova in an interview. Sydykova manages the drug treatment program in the city of Jalalabad.

Concerns also are growing over the corruption-prone Tajikistan and Kyrgyz republics where law enforcement agencies are widely believed to be participating in the illicit drug trade. The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report says that the “absence of legitimate economic development has political and security implications, and control of lucrative routes is a source of rivalry between regional elites and within corrupted security services.” in Tajikistan. UNODC also believes the illicit drug trade is affecting states in Central Asia by feeding corruption that weakens the ability of regional governments to function long term.

The most vulnerable state impacted by regional drug trafficking — Tajikistan — is estimated to have generated 20-30% of its GDP through redistribution and laundering of drug money on a domestic basis. The ICG report indicated that between 2005 and 2013, Tajikistan received $83 million in US and international aid to combat drug trafficking.

But these regional security initiatives are mainly driven by the international donors (US and EU). As a result, such projects “lack active implementation” by the government of Tajikistan, says ICG. There also are allegations of indirect involvement of Tajik security forces in drug trafficking. These are the same state security units that are reportedly executing repressive policies against dissent in Tajikistan where deterioration of human rights has worried western policymakers since last year.

Close cooperation on drug-related policies has yet to reach full consensus among Central Asian authoritarian states despite increased heroin and opiate smuggling from Afghanistan. UNODC’s latest report shows a decrease in drug seizures in Central Asia over the last several years whilst Russia has registered an increase in the interception of drug shipments in the same period.

The UN reports that transnational crime networks manage smuggling operations throughout the region, feeding domestic corruption in Central Asia. Such assessments seem plausible in impoverished Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan where local economies depend on migrant remittances and economic aid from international donors. However, Central Asian governments have failed to identify these criminal networks in their respective territories.

The implications of failed attempts to stem the flow of drugs through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan shouldn’t be underestimated. The international community and regional powers China and Russia must direct their attention to the need for reform in two of the region’s weakest states. Many experts and regional observers agree that the Tajik and Kyrgyz governments will be unable to deal with drug trafficking without external assistance.

Drug addicts prepare heroin in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan

However, security projects shouldn’t be prioritized at the expense of humanitarian programs that have proved effective in Kyrgyzstan. Methadone maintenance treatment, for instance, has been successfully pursued in the Kyrgyz Republic for over a decade. According to Kyrgyz medics, needle swap projects and methadone treatment have resulted in a sharp decrease of HIV transmitted cases among drug users in Kyrgyzstan from over 90% in 2002 to 51% in 2016.

Kyrgyz professionals who have monitored the social effect of drug trafficking in the Central Asian nation are calling for more state efforts to promote better understanding of the drug abuse problem inside the country. “Nowadays, youth is using the Internet via mobile devices to access mass and social media. Therefore, (it is possible) to influence their consciousness in a positive way. We shall use this opportunity to guide young people to achieve good results. And the government and society must take the lead” said Kyzjibek Sydykova.

South Kyrgyzstan based journalist, Jalil Saparov contributed to this report

Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer-analyst with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey and the US. Contact e-mail: rsatke at

Copyright Ryskeldi Satke 2016

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