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Drugs Warning for New Silk Road

Georgian security officials fear their country could become a hub for Afghan drug shipments.
By Levan Girsiashvili

A new transport corridor designed to ease transport between Europe and Asia will provide criminals with an easy way of trafficking drugs, Georgian analysts fear.

The route, known as the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia, is a huge European Union-sponsored project that is beginning to come into being after a decade of work. It involves building and refurbishing rail, road and sea connections - and simplifying bureaucracy such as customs along the way - from Europe's North Sea coast to China's Pacific ports.

It is estimated that the 13 participating countries have spent upwards of 700 million euro on the work since 1993.

The scheme should transform the Caucasus and Central Asia from backwaters into important transport hubs, a role they last played in the Middle Ages when traders carried goods overland between China and Europe. For that reason, TRACECA has been called the new Silk Route.

In early September, Germany's Daimler-Chrysler firm dispatched ten trucks carrying 200 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The consignment arrived safely a month later, after having covered 6,000 kilometres. The convoy was seen as a test of TRACECA's road transport networks.

The German trucks arrived in Tbilisi on September 16, to much official fanfare. President Eduard Shevardnadze made a personal appearance to underline how important TRACECA is to Georgia, and officials described the shipment as a trial run for the project.

Transport minister Merab Adeishvili said, "For me it's a certainty that the pilot shipment will be followed by an upturn in cargo flows, and by general economic growth in the Caucasus and the rest of Eurasia."

Alexander Rondeli, head of Georgia's Endowment for Strategic and International Studies, explained that "TRACECA is of particular political and economic importance to Georgia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. For a young, newly independent state, proximity to an international transportation artery is an additional guarantee of independence".

Yet Georgian officials also recognise that opening up the trade route could have some unpleasant side-effects, such as traffickers using it to speed narcotics to Europe.

"We have to admit TRACECA is an ideal route for drug traffickers," national security ministry spokesman Nika Laliashvili told IWPR.

He said the interlinked transport system could prove more convenient than current routes used by criminals. "Arms trafficking is also a threat, but drugs are a far greater danger," he told IWPR. "This threat cannot be averted without regional coordination."

Laliashvili said his minister, Valeri Khaburdzania, had already discussed the potential threat with his counterparts in Azerbaijan and Iran. "They agreed to respond to the threat proactively," he said. "It's better to spend an extra couple of dollars at points of risk today than to spend thousands in Europe when the dangerous cargo arrives at its destination."

A spokesman for the Georgian intelligence service also voiced concern, "Any transportation corridor is fraught with dangers of this type, and TRACECA is no exception."

National security council member Zaza Sukhishvili played down the threat. "Drug trafficking has continued unabated so far, so the new route probably won't make any difference," he told IWPR.

But independent analysts believe it won't be long before the drug barons identify the TRACECA's advantages, as the shortest and least bureaucratic route to Europe.

"To stem the drug traffic, we need to be able to monitor vehicles at the border, using advanced technology which Georgia does not have," said analyst Alexander Rondeli. "The Georgian state is thoroughly corrupt and economically weak, and is thus in no position to take on international crime rings. To make matters worse, Georgia simply prefers to ignore the threat."

Levan Girsiashvili is a reporter for the 24 Saati newspaper in Tbilisi.

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