Heroin use poses a growing challenge

Murat, not his real name, is steadily working the phone in search of something. At first glance, it is unclear why he appears so worried, but after listening to him speak on the phone, it is clear he is after his next hit of heroin.

The unemployed 34-year-old, a resident of the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, does not consider himself an addict, given the stigma attached to it. He maintains he can quit any time, whenever he wants. At present, the financial burden of supporting his two children lies with his spouse, who teaches and does extra work to provide for the family - and her husband's heroin habit.

Some observers told IRIN that Murat's case highlights a growing issue which Turkmen officials are reluctant to acknowledge, as officially there are no problems in the reclusive Central Asian state.

Information or statistics on the number of drug addicts, seizures and other issues related to drugs are not available in secretive Turkmenistan. Since 2000, Ashgabat has failed to report any drug seizures to international organisations. Even specialised agencies of the United Nations, like the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) cannot access this 'sensitive' data.

Turkmen authorities "believe there are no seizures because there is no trafficking,'' Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UNODC, said during a recent tour of Central Asia. "I would like to be reassured that's the case," he added.

Any estimate of drug trafficking or addiction is simply a guess as long as the government does not publish statistics. This is partly because of officials' fear of releasing any news that might displease President Saparmurat Niyazov. Ruling the former Soviet republic since 1985 with an iron fist, Niyazov regularly fires ministers and bureaucrats in what analysts say encourages a climate of fear and reduces opposition to his autocratic rule.

According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the number of registered drug users monitored by the Turkmen health ministry grew from 5,953 (or 125 per 100,000 of population) in 1997, to 13,000 (or 242 per 100,000) in 2000, the latest data available. About 20 percent of drug users injected drugs intravenously and there was evidence that unsafe injecting practices were widespread.

However, some experts estimated that the ratio of injecting drug users to all drug users in the energy-rich country could be as much as 30 percent.

"In general, within the Central Asian region the rate of [drug] addiction is about one percent of the population and I wouldn't have any reason to think that it's much different for Turkmenistan," James Callahan, the head of UNODC's Central Asia regional office, told IRIN from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

If that were the case, the estimated number of drug addicts would be some 64,000 - or one percent of the official figure for the population of Turkmenistan - 6.4 million. Whatever the real number, heroin is easily available in Ashgabat. One just needs to drive to Hitrovka, an unremarkable residential district of the city, where one injecting dose costs around US $1.25, and smoking prices vary between some $0.60 and one dollar, depending on the quality of the drug.

Kurban, a 46-year-old taxi driver in Ashgabat, told IRIN he once gave a lift to a doctor, whose son was pale and seemed sick. They asked him to drive to Hitrovka, where they stopped in front of a small house and kept him waiting for 10 minutes. "When the woman and her son got into my car I thought that he was ill, but when the mother said 'Hitrovka' and after looking closely it was obvious that he was having withdrawal symptoms, leg tremors etc," he said.

The situation in rural areas seems to be no different, according to some local observers who say that in some cases young people even offer each other heroin at weddings instead of vodka, a traditional spirit at festivities.

A retired teacher from one of the Akhal province villages gave the example of his neighbour, a young man who used to be well off before becoming addicted to drugs. "After he started doing heroin he lost everything. His family was ruined, his young wife couldn't stand his drug parties any more and divorced him taking their three children with her. Now he is selling his house piece-by-piece to buy the drug," he said.

The elderly man aired his quite radical approach to fighting the problem. "They [drug addicts] are not human any more, they are not able to quit drugs. They are of no use to society and themselves. Therefore, they all need to be shot dead, this is the only solution," he said quite categorically, recalling the methods of the Stalinist era in the former Soviet Union.

Drugs trafficked from neighbouring Afghanistan, the world's top opium producer, are the root cause of the problem, observers say. Others add that socio-economic problems, including unemployment - especially among young people - and huge changes in values along with limited prospects for the future, are contributory factors. Official indifference and alleged complicity in the drugs trade also fuel the problem.

Turkmenistan shares some 700 km of poorly-policed border with Afghanistan, but nobody knows the amount of drugs trafficked through the ex-Soviet republic. "They [Turkmen authorities] haven't been providing statistics, seizure information to us or to anyone for that matter. So, it's difficult to know," Callahan of UNODC said.

But some observers say that there is significant drug trafficking going through Turkmenistan from the Afghan border and then to the Caspian Sea, and further to Russia and Western Europe.

As for the amount of drugs being trafficking via Turkmenistan, there are no estimates available as there is no public data on seizures. "We have no seizure information from Turkmenistan and seizures are relatively low in the other Central Asian states except for Tajikistan, which has far higher rate of seizures than any of the others. We have nothing upon which to base a judgement," Callahan explained.

"They [Turkmen authorities] have open borders with Afghanistan, but even the UN doesn't know what they're doing about drug trafficking," Kamol Dusmetov, the head of the Uzbek National Centre for Drug Control, said earlier this year.

In March, Turkmenistan's lack of cooperation with the international community in its fight against illicit drugs drew sharp criticism from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent UN body monitoring global drug proliferation.

The INCB expressed concern that Ashgabat had failed to participate in several regional and sub-regional drug-control activities or was not actively participating in cooperative arrangements which it had formally signed up to.

However, there seems to be a glimmer of hope that things may change as Ashgabat begins to feel the consequences of the drugs trade more fully. "The Turkmen government has become much more cooperative in the last months with regard to our projects and programmes. I do have hope that we will be able to begin to get more information on this issue from them in the near future," Callahan said.

Meanwhile, the UNODC's national project on border control with the Turkmen government is in its early days. "The situation looks quite good in terms of cooperation. I think we will be able to learn a lot more about what's going on and also to help the government there to deal with it [drug trafficking]," he noted.

But some observers speculate that Tajikistan's success in counter-narcotics efforts and higher rates of seizures of drugs coming from Afghanistan, coupled with a short border with Uzbekistan, also pretty tightly controlled, could lead drug traffickers to turn to the Turkmen-Afghan border, the Afghan side of which is not controlled at all. Should that happen, the Turkmen border could be very vulnerable.