Turkmen Addiction Rising

The president's goal of a 'drug-free century' remains only a fantasy.

Turkmen Addiction Rising

The president's goal of a 'drug-free century' remains only a fantasy.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

"Drugs have ruined my life. I tried Anasha [marijuana] when I was 15. Then I went on to opium," recounts Orazgeldi, an addict with a ten-year record of drug abuse. "It soon became a habit and I couldn't quit. Recently I started injecting and heroin became my purpose in life. I tried to undergo treatment - useless. It seems that I won't last long."

Orazgeldi is, according to Chara Ataev of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, UNODCCP, in Turkmenistan, just one of around 13,000 officially registered drug-addicts in the country, more than three times the number registered by the Turkmen Ministry of Health in 1996.

A chasm separates this reality from the goal of "a 21st Century free of drugs" declared recently by Turkmenistan's autocratic president and notorious dreamer, Saparmurat Niazov. Ironically, it is Niazov's economic ineptitude - impoverishing more than half the population in a country rich in gas and oil - which has driven many young people, who foresee few prospects for themselves, to seek solace in drugs.

True, Niazov acknowledges some of the practical problems. "We severely punished drug-addicts and drug-dealers, almost using capital punishment," he admitted, "and what was the outcome? Drug-addiction is spreading in all directions like a cancerous tumour."

But the president's practical proposals seem hastily conceived. He has offered to work "personally" with each addict and only to begin criminal proceedings when all other methods of persuasion have been exhausted. And he has called for local communities to ostracise addicts. "In this way the plague would not spread and would die together with its carrier," he has said.

Drug abuse is not new to Turkmenistan. When the republic was part of the Soviet Union, drug-addiction was considered one of its most acute problems. According to official figures for 1989, 124 people out of every 100,000 were addicted to drugs, more than four times the average across the rest of the Soviet Union.

Despite the official statistics, no-one knows exactly how many drug-addicts there are in the country, but it is clear the number is growing faster than officials can count. Turkmen medics are alarmed by the increasing levels of drug abuse by women, adolescents and 20-25 year-olds. Meanwhile, the police report that one in three crimes in Turkmenistan is drugs-related.

Eighty per cent of addicts use opium, but Ataev says that though opium is a traditional drug in Turkmenistan, heroin has lately become easier to obtain. "Even in the regions", he says, "it is now harder to get opium than heroin."

According to the UNODCCP, all of the heroin is imported across Turkmenistan's southern borders from the countries of the so-called Golden Crescent: Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. The bulk is on its way to Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Russia, but some is distributed in Turkmenistan.

Drug-smugglers have become especially active on the 800 kilometre long Turkmen-Afgan border. In one instance in 1997, Turkmen security services caught an Afghan citizen attempting to smuggle in nearly 48 kilos of heroin. In another incident, in 1998, Turkmen customs officers discovered more than ten tonnes of hashish concealed in containers in transit from Afghanistan to Russia.

Nevertheless, after the sharp rise in the penetration of narcotic substances into Turkmenistan recorded during 1997-98, the UNODCCP believes the present trend is downwards. Official data records Turkmen customs seizing 2,900 kilograms of opium and 220 kilograms of heroin in 2000, compared to 4,600 kilograms and 240 kilograms, respectively, in 1999, though this may owe something to a drought-stricken opium harvest in Afghanistan last year. But it is impossible to estimate the exact quantity of drugs that cross the border - the UN calculates that only 10 per cent of the total is being seized.

Some measures to combat the drugs menace are in place. The authorities have launched a somewhat ambitious ten-year national plan to fight drug-addiction and provide help to addicts. Perhaps more importantly, clinics where addicts can remain anonymous but still receive treatment have been set up in the capital, Ashgabat, and various regional centres. Meanwhile, special local councils - comprising law enforcement officers, local government representatives, imams and respected elderly citizens - aim to help addicts break their habits.

But little of this is likely to help Orazgeldi or many others of his generation. "A human being lives only once," he laments. "But even if one could live ten lives, I wouldn't have lived even one of them as a junkie. It's a pity that I realised this so late."

The name of the journalist has been withheld upon request.

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