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Traffic Control

Georgia is in an ideal location to control, or exploit, the flow of drugs around the region.
By Irakli Chikhladze
Abkhazia is a pot smoker's paradise. Wander down the main street in the capital, Sukhumi, and you'll see elderly women openly selling marijuana along with their nuts and sunflower seeds. A two hundred gram glass jar of pot can be had for as little as three US dollars.

Sometimes the weed is trafficked up the coast to Russia; other times it gets sent down the coast through Georgia.

The well known Moscow based television journalist Andrej Karaulov says Russian customs officials "are aware of everything. But they have no will, or power [to intervene]. Money and bribes decide everything."

Georgia, is traffic control for the drug trade.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia sought to trade on its ideal geographic position. Plum in the centre of the Caucasus, between the Russian Federation and Turkey, plans were laid out to strengthen infrastructure and services.

With 300 million US dollars from the European Union and World Bank, an east/west axis was envisioned. Central Asian and Caucasus heads of state were even inspired to set up an initiative restoring the historic silk route.

Now Georgia has gained a reputation as a transit country used by a number of increasingly wealthy drug traffickers hauling heroine from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, and opium from Azerbaijan. Sour relations between Baku and Yerevan has cut Armenia out of the drugs route, further enhancing Georgia's position.

No exact figures exist for the amount of drugs pouring through Georgia. Estimates can be made based on Interpol accounts of seizures made once the contraband has filtered through the Turkish border. In 1992, 1.5 tonnes of morphine was seized. In 1997, US officials laid their hands on a ton of opium and heroin originating in Azerbaijan.

Geography aside, Georgia has several other elements which facilitate trafficking: a relatively well-developed transport infrastructure, highly corrupt customs and police forces, low standards of living, and high levels of unemployment. These all help move the drugs and draw in the talents of the local population, eager to take their share of the profits of this lucrative trade.

In the Pankisi Gorge, in north-eastern Georgia, one gram of heroin goes for about 40 US dollars. The price rises to 200 US dollars by the time it reaches the capital, Tbilisi. Drugs also pour in from North Ossetia, Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Azerbaijan. The greatest demand is for marijuana, and Georgia manages to meet 60 per cent of domestic demand itself, with cannabis plants grown in the inaccessible mountain passes of Samegrelo and Upper Svanetia.

Since even these prices are high for many users, addicts are sent on buying trips to the markets in Pankisi Gorge or South Ossetia in return for a small share of the goods. In recent months, access to the gorge has been restricted as a result of a spate of kidnappings there by local paramilitary groups.

But increasingly well-organised gangs expand the drugs network, and police seem unequal to the task of stopping them.

"The police must become as well organised as the criminal structures," Interpol president John Ebbert told the organisation's thirtieth regional conference in Tbilisi in June.

Indeed, a main reason for the booming transit business is the inefficiency of the Georgian police. Bribery, however, is far better organised, with back-handers having their own fixed rates in police and customs ranks. Get caught high, and you can expect a 35-50 US dollar fine. Get caught with heroin or cocaine and you can expect to pay up to 8,000 US dollars - although, like everything, this is negotiable.

Although some police officers have been prosecuted for taking bribes, the number of arrests has been minimal.

Gocha Sisauri, the man spearheading the government's attempts to fight the drug barons, believes the situation is made worse by the authorities' failure to pay attention to it. The one million US dollars planned for a state anti-drug programme was diverted elsewhere in the budget.

In any event, there is hardly a great public demand to crack down on the trade. The number of users and addicts is spiralling, and the trade is proliferating so far that families are often dependent not just on the narcotics themselves but also on the money it brings in.

The problem is also exacerbated by the lawless regions in and around the country's periphery.

"During any given day you can see a lively trade in the Pankisi Gorge," said military prosecutor Badri Bitsadze after a recent visit to the region. But as the area is under the control of warlords, the interior ministry is loath to go in.

An effective anti-drugs strategy would have to take a long-term approach to confronting problems of corruption, organised crime, poverty and regional instability. Lacking this, Georgia looks likely to remain on the narcotics blacklist for the foreseeable future.

Irakli Chikhladze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.

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