Recent weeks have seen a number of major narcotics busts in Tajikistan. On June 17, a border patrol found a cache containing almost 420 kilograms of cannabis in Shurobod district, on the country’s southern frontier with Afghanistan. On June 11, the authorities reported busting some 14 kg of hashish in the country’s north. One day earlier, police in Shurobod spotted a group of Afghan smugglers that had crossed the Panj River separating the two countries. Following a brief shootout, the smugglers retreated to Afghanistan, leaving behind about 100 kg of cannabis. On June 9, police reported capturing some 107 kg of narcotics, including 38 kg of heroin, in Hamadoni, another Tajik district lying on the southern frontier. On June 6, police intercepted more than 90 kg of narcotics after a two-hour clash with Afghan smugglers in Shurobod. Overall, almost 800 kg of drugs have been seized in Tajikistan since the beginning of June (news.tj, June 7, 10, 11, 18).
These interceptions represent only a tiny portion of the total flow of narcotics transported through Tajikistan en route to Russia and other destinations. In a report released in May, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 75 to 80 metric tons of Afghan-made heroin and 18 to 20 tons of opium is smuggled through the country annually. This means that about 200 kg of heroin and 50 kg of opium pass through Tajikistan every day. Most of these narcotics end up in Russia where demand is driven by an estimated 2.5 million drug users (“Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia: A Threat Assessment,” UNODC, May 2012; fskn.gov.ru, May 3).
The flow of narcotics through Tajikistan is likely to increase over the next several years. Reports by the UN estimate that the production of opium in Afghanistan increased from 3.6 tons in 2010 to 5.8 tons in 2011. Moreover, the Afghan drug business is increasingly targeting Tajikistan as the primary transit country for heroin bound to Russia and Eastern Europe. Recent reports indicate that the cultivation of opium poppies in the northeastern areas of Afghanistan, lying along the border with Tajikistan, has lately increased by half while the number of laboratories that process opium into heroin has doubled (interfax.ru, May 31; rferl.org, March 28).
As negotiations continue over the extension of Russia’s use of a military base in Tajikistan, the Central Asian country’s envoy to Russia suggests that his government wants Moscow to pay rent for operating the facility. Speaking to journalists on February 28, Abdulmajid Dostiev acknowledged that the issue of rent has been holding back the finalization of a new treaty which would extend Russia’s basing rights in Tajikistan for the next 49 years. The two countries had agreed to sign the treaty back in September 2011, but they left for later the contentious issue of payment.
Moscow has reportedly sought to prolong the treaty without committing to any payment arrangements. Russia remains the largest source of technical-military and economic assistance to Tajikistan, and Russian diplomats have proposed that this assistance should count as rent. However, the Tajik side wants Moscow to commit to a fixed amount of money that it would either pay in annual rent fees or spend on technical-military assistance to the country. Russian media have speculated that Dushanbe expects Moscow to contribute about $300 million annually, while Tajik experts say Dushanbe would settle for $30 million. Without commenting on the details of Tajikistan’s demands, Dostiev asserted that, “not a single country in the world today would give up the smallest plot of its land for free” (www.ozodi.org, February 28).
After Tajikistan’s independence in 1991, Moscow retained control of the Soviet 201st motorized rifle division, which had been stationed in the country. In 2004, the division was reorganized into Russia’s permanent military base. The base now has around 7,000 troops – Russia’s largest ground force deployed abroad – stationed in Dushanbe, Kulob and Qurghonteppa (www.news.tj, October 21, 2011). Russia has also sought access to the Indian-renovated Ayni air base near the Tajik capital, but Tajikistan made it clear that Moscow would have to pay to use the facility (EDM, February 9, 2011).
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is unlikely to receive a very warm welcome during his state visit to Tajikistan scheduled for September. The gradually cooling relations between the two countries have hit a new low after Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the lower house of Russia’s parliament, wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on August 2 that Russian border guards should return to Tajikistan’s southern frontier (from which they pulled out in 2005) in order to stem the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan. Aware of Dushanbe’s unwillingness to share its security duties with Moscow, Gryzlov proposed to introduce visas for Tajik nationals travelling to Russia if Tajikistan persists in opposing the return of Russian border guards. Remittances sent home by an estimated one million Tajik labor migrants in Russia account for about 40 percent of the country’s GDP, keeping hundreds of thousands of Tajik families out of extreme poverty.
For over one year, Moscow has been pressing for the return of its border troops to Tajikistan. Russian officials are genuinely concerned about the impact of Afghan narcotics, most of which are smuggled into the country through Central Asia. An estimated 130,000 people in Russia die each year from heroin overdoses and drug-related crime (www.telegraph.co.uk, April 28, 2010). Last year, Russia’s anti-narcotics chief, Viktor Ivanov, suggested that about 60 percent of Russia-bound Afghan heroin is smuggled through Tajikistan, which needs support in fighting drug trafficking through its borders (www.rg.ru, May 6, 2010).
On May 31, a group of Afghan cattle raiders stole some 80 cows from a farm in Shurobod district, on Tajikistan’s southern border with Afghanistan. Under the cover of the night, the armed raiders drove the cows across the Panj River, which separates the two countries. Earlier in the year, Afghans kidnapped two residents of the district. One of them was recently released after his relatives paid the ransom money (www.regnum.ru, June 2; http://www.avesta.tj, June 7).
These incidents demonstrate that almost six years after Tajik border guards assumed full control of the Afghan border, the frontier remains severely ill-protected. Part of the problem is the border’s geography. Much of the 1,344 kilometers (840 miles) Tajik-Afghan frontier is mountainous terrain, which makes it easier for Afghan smugglers to hide from Tajik border patrols and escape quickly when they are spotted.
As US-led forces gear up to downsize in Afghanistan, Moscow is increasingly worried about the possibility of militants, drugs and instability seeping into Central Asia. This growing concern is pushing the Kremlin to seek a more hands-on role in Central Asian border security.
The greatest security challenge for Russia is Tajikistan, an impoverished country with a porous 1,400-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan. At least six armed clashes between security forces and suspected militants and/or drug traffickers reportedly occurred near the frontier during the first four months of this year. Officials in Dushanbe insist that Islamic militants are using Afghanistan as safe haven in efforts to topple the Tajik government. Independent observers, meanwhile, suspect much of the recent violence is linked to narcotics. Whatever the cause, Moscow is alarmed.