Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karabakh Rejects Drug Claims

Allegation made to the UN that Nagorny Karabakh is used as narcotics route is angrily denied by the Armenians.
By Ashot Beglarian

The Armenian authorities in Nagorny Karabakh have invited international officials to come and monitor the territories they control, after allegations from Azerbaijan that the region is a transit corridor for the drugs trade.


The issue cropped up this week at a Vienna meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs. One item on the agenda proposed that, “The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in coordination with the appropriate organs of the United Nations system, Interpol and other international organisations should be invited to study the drugs situation in the territories outside the control of the legitimate governments of the countries in the region (Afghanistan, Iraq and the Nagorny Karabakh region of Azerbaijan).”


In response, Masis Mailian, deputy foreign minister of the unrecognised republic of Nagorny Karabakh told IWPR that his government was happy to welcome an independent international monitoring group to visit all of the territory it controlled - both Karabakh itself and the Armenian-occupied territories around it.


“The group must include truly independent international experts who would conduct an objective investigation,” said Mailian.


Azerbaijan claims that Nagorny Karabakh and the surrounding lands under Armenian control have become a transit point for narcotics on the “southern route” of the heroin trade, that originates in Afghanistan and passes through Iran on its way to Europe. It says the long stretch of border along the Araxes river between Iran and the empty lands controlled by the Karabakh Armenians is entirely unmonitored, and is therefore a good entry point for drug traffickers.


Ali Hassanov, chairman of Azerbaijan’s State Commission to Combat Drug Abuse and Illegal Trafficking, said the main problem his commission faced was “the uncontrolled territories occupied by Armenia, where narcotics are cultivated, and through which they are trafficked”.


However, Karabakh Armenian official Mailian challenged anyone to provide evidence of this, noting that the US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report published on March 1 this year failed even to mention Nagorny Karabakh, while stating that Azerbaijan is one of the main transit routes for international trafficking.


IWPR also asked the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC. in Vienna whether it had evidence of Karabakh being used as a transit point. The response was that UNODC had no available evidence, although a change of personnel in its Tehran office meant it was unable to check fully with its sources in Iran.


The Karabakh Armenian authorities say that, on the contrary, they have been waging a persistent campaign against the cultivation of opium poppies and wild cannabis that used to grow in Karabakh.


Locals now admit that the territory suffered from a drug problem during the war of 1991-94, but they say that this has now been brought under control.


“The problem of cultivating narcotic plants was particularly difficult during the war, in 1992-1993,” said one villager. “You should have seen the care – that should have been put to better use – with which some people grew poppies. There’s nothing surprising about that – the plant is easier and cheaper to grow, and profits from selling it are much higher, than many other plants, vegetables and fruits.” He explained that drugs were sometimes bartered for flour, sugar and other items that were then in short supply


When fighting was still going on in 1993, the police force launched their first operation Mak (Poppy), which has been repeated every year since then in Karabakh and the surrounding territories. On average up to five tons of wild cannabis and up to 15 kilos of unprocessed opium poppies are found and destroyed each year.


“Two years running, in 1993 and 1994, I was involved in Mak operations as part of various internal affairs ministry groups,” Albert Voskanian, a retired lieutenant colonel in the police, told IWPR. “We searched through all the regions, all the fields and garden plots where opium poppy could possibly be grown. We began the operation at a time when the poppies were almost ready, but it was still too early to harvest. We uprooted the plants that we found, registered them in a report and took them away to burn.


“Many owners were reluctant to give up the harvest voluntarily, and there were cases of resistance. The operation was so important that some troops were called in from the front to assist.”


Voskanian said that in the first year the owners of plantations were not punished, only warned. This proved to be effective – there was much less cannabis and poppy during the second year.


Slavik Gasparian, another veteran of these operations, also says they were broadly very successful. “During the war I served as a senior sergeant in a unit of the Karabakh army and I knew about all the operations to destroy poppy and cannabis plantations. I can say just one thing – the joint efforts of the law enforcement forces, army and other agencies produced an excellent result. At least after 1995, people were afraid to grow even one poppy plant openly.”


Karabakh’s interior ministry says that in 1998-2003, the authorities uncovered 156 drug-related crimes, half of which were related to cultivating illegal narcotic plants and the rest to the illegal purchase, possession and abuse of drugs. It says that drug-related crimes comprise only five per cent of all offences.


Representatives of the penal institutions of Nagorny Karabakh said that interior ministry doctors provide compulsory treatment for all drug addicts in custody.


Sociologist David Sarkisian said that some Karabakhis experimented with cannabis, but there was a strong social taboo against drug taking as a whole in society.


“There are no objective preconditions for the wide dissemination of drugs and drug abuse in Nagorny Karabakh,” Sarkisian said. “Our society categorically rejects drug addicts, considering them the most degraded members of society – worse than even the most miserable drunkards. Many young people try cannabis and other weed either out of curiosity or from a mistaken idea of self-assertion.”


The more controversial matter of whether drugs are passing through Karabakh from Iran will remain disputed as long as there is no verdict from international agencies. The UN has so far not decided whether to send a delegation to the region to study the claims.


Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert.