Russia's heroin problem and ongoing battles over Afghan poppy fields

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 4:19 PM

MOSCOW - Russia has a heroin problem - a bad one. And drug officials here have been blaming it on the United States, saying its refusal to spray Afghan poppy fields is devastating Russia.

While the two countries have been getting along famously in recent months, resolving serious differences over arms control, Iran and trade, they have not agreed on what to do about the mountains of heroin cascading from Afghanistan. The complaints from Russia grew ever louder - until Friday.

At a briefing in Moscow, Viktor Ivanov, director of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, declared that U.S. forces acting on information from Russian intelligence had knocked out a complex of four drug labs on the Afghan border with Pakistan, confiscating a ton of heroin worth millions.

"We are jointly working," Ivanov said Friday, adding that four Russians accompanied U.S. forces, the first time Russians had been at an operation there since withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1989. "As you can see, we do as we promise."

Ivanov has been campaigning hard against the heroin epidemic - Russia has about 2 million addicts who consume about 21 percent of the world's supply. But his critics say it is easier to crusade against opium production in Afghanistan than to stem it here, where it's too profitable a business to disrupt, methadone is illegal and there is no rehabilitation system.

Last year, Richard C. Holbrooke, special U.S. representative to Afghanistan, declared that attempts to eradicate Afghan opium fields had been an expensive failure. Alienated farmers were left destitute, he said, and went straight into the arms of the Taliban. Instead, the United States wants to develop the economy so farmers have other sources of income - a strategy that will not offer quick results - while pursuing drug cartels and money-laundering operations.

"We can only do it together," Eric S. Rubin, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said Friday. "We cannot do it alone."

The difficulty encountered in trying to achieve a common approach on Afghan opium, however, illuminates much about the complexity of the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Ivanov, repeatedly and publicly, dates Russia's heroin problems to 2001, when "the world community adopted some notorious resolutions," as he said at a forum here over the summer.

Afghanistan has long produced opium, but in 2001, with the Taliban in control, the amount was minute. In 2002, with war underway, production rose to more than 3,000 tons, reaching more than 8,000 tons before dipping last year to about 7,000 tons. Poppies are grown mostly in unstable Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and the financial incentive is huge: A recent survey by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime found opium farmers grossed $4,900 per 2.5 acres while wheat brought $770.

Afghanistan produces nearly all of the world's illegal opium, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, which estimates that this country of 140 million people - less than half the size of the United States - consumes more than 70 tons of heroin a year. It flows through porous borders with Central Asia northward to Russia, where addiction has traditionally been treated as a moral failing.

Corruption encourages the illegal narcotics trade to flourish, said Kirill Kabanov, chairman of the private National Anti-Corruption Committee.

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