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Spotty Kazakhstani record in past has made country key leg of the Northern Route
By Alexandra Babkina
ALMATY – Kazakhstan is implementing a 6-billion-KZT (US $40m) programme aimed at curtailing the flow of drugs through the country.
In April, the government adopted a five-year plan to fight drug abuse and trafficking. A large part of it – 4.2 billion KZT (US $27.7m) – will strengthen the southern border in a bid to stop the entry of narcotics.
“Plans are in place to ... install barriers and new inspection systems and to provide checkpoints with vehicles and modern communications,” the Committee for Fighting the Narcotics Business (KBN) press office told Central Asia Online.
Programme priorities include more-thorough analysis of the drug situation and of means to prevent heroin smuggling, as well as enhanced co-operation with international organisations in fighting drug abuse and trafficking. Kazakhstan also plans to continue equipping its security agencies’ canine units.
Drug confiscations fall
The plan comes as part of a response to a marked decline in the amount of drugs Kazakhstan has been confiscating.
The weight of opium seized nationwide in 2011 fell by 62% compared to a year earlier, according to the anti-drug Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre (CARICC).
Heroin saw a similar drop. In 2009, Kazakhstan intercepted 730kg of heroin, but the total dropped to 323kg in 2010. About 70-75 tonnes of heroin passed through Kazakhstan in 2010, the UN estimated in its May study “Opiate Flows through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia: a Threat Assessment.”
“The situation with drugs is becoming more complex,” said Edil Zhubanov, a CARICC employee. “Kazakhstan continues to serve as a convenient transit route for drug smugglers … especially for opium and heroin trafficking.”
The Afghan drug trade relies, in part, on the so-called Northern Route, a corridor from northern Afghanistan through Central Asia to Russia. Weak anti-drug-trafficking programmes in Central Asia, continue to make the Northern Route attractive to smugglers, according to the report.
Of all the Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan has been the least successful in combating opiate trafficking.
In 2011, opiate seizures in Kazakhstan amounted to 7% of the region’s total. Uzbekistan accounted for 38%, Tajikistan 23%, Turkmenistan 18% and Kyrgyzstan 11%. The total does not equal 100% due to rounding.
The 6-billion-KZT programme is part of a continuing effort to disrupt drug transit along the Northern Route, but challenges remain.
“Under the state programme to combat drug trafficking for 2009-2011, the equipment at checkpoints was updated, and additional scanners, detectors and sniffer dogs were purchased,” Aleksandr Loskutov, head of the Interior Ministry’s Almaty anti-drug office, said.
But in recalling how Russian border guards with a modern scanner found heroin in a truck that their Kazakhstani counterparts had failed to detect, he said many outposts are still awaiting new equipment, which should be delivered by the end of 2014.
Challenges to stopping drug flow
“The increase in opium production in Afghanistan in 2011 by 5,800 tonnes unavoidably affected the situation in Central Asia,” explained Beksultan Sarsekov, director of CARICC. “In the first half of 2012 we saw an increase in the amount opiates traveling along the Northern Route, particularly through Kazakhstan, which is the only country in the region that has a land border with Russia.”
CARICC employees note the difficulty of securing the 3,600km-long Kazakhstani border.
“It is not difficult to walk or ride a horse across the ... ‘gaps,’ places remote from towns and border outposts on the Kazakhstani-Kyrgyz border,” Loskutov said. “Vehicles can drive around the checkpoints, too.”
Other factors have affected the ability of Kazakhstani authorities to stop drugs. For example, sealed containers and trucks passing through (and not stopping in) Kazakhstan under the International Road Transport Convention (TIR Convention) are not subject to thorough inspections in Kazakhstan, Loskutov said.
Another challenge is the Russia-Kazakhstan-Belarus Customs Union, which since July 2011 has deprived Kazakhstanis of the right to inspect cargo heading from Kazakhstan to Russia.
“Drug traffickers are trying to take full advantage of the abolition of the borders with Russia,” Sarsekov said. The situation is under control, the Interior Ministry contended. “Tense but stable” was how Anatoly Viborov, chairman of the ministry’s KBN, described it.
Kazakhstan has made punishment for smuggling and selling drugs much tougher, Viborov added. Offenders can expect 10- to 20-year sentences or life in prison.