When an urgent telephone summons came in to the Bon-Pet clinic last October, Alexander Duka responded as he always did for an emergency: He loaded up his medical bag, set off in his car and prepared to operate on an injured dog.
But when he arrived at the address the caller had given and prepared a syringe with the anesthetic ketamine, Duka found himself under arrest in a sting operation conducted by undercover agents of Russia's powerful new drug-fighting agency.
Formed a year ago to bring the full force of the country's law enforcement to bear against a growing drug crisis, the agency -- headed by a close friend of President Vladimir Putin from the KGB -- has an army of 40,000 at its disposal, four times larger than the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
But at a time when Russia is reeling from terror attacks that have killed 1,000 people in the past two years, critics point to the new agency as a study in misplaced priorities and questionable tactics.
Resources that could have been devoted to fighting big-time drug traffickers or cracking down on Chechen guerrillas have gone instead to campaigns against veterinarians, physicians and dentists, vendors of popular T-shirts bearing images of marijuana leaves and bookstores that sell tomes on the medicinal uses of illegal narcotics.
"It's classic Russian bureaucracy: to search not where something is lost but where the light is hanging," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst who runs the Panorama research organization in Moscow. "It's easier to fight against books than heroin or terrorists."
"This is a new agency that wants to show society how active they are and whose agents believe they can use whatever methods they want," added Duka, who was convicted by a Moscow court last week of criminal possession of a drug that was illegal at the time but has since been legalized and is the only anesthetic widely available here for animals. "I am just one of the veterinarians who became part of this provocation on their part. Any veterinarian could have been in my place."
To many critics, the Federal Drug Control Agency has become a sort of reincarnated KGB, employing Soviet-era tactics to suppress alternative points of view and running symbolic campaigns while failing to tackle the sources of the Russian drug business. Many of its top officials spent much of their careers in the KGB. The drug agency's director, Viktor Cherkesov, investigated Soviet dissidents when he was a top official in the spy agency's infamous 5th Directorate.
Many of the drug agency's victories have been symbolic, such as persuading a court to declare that leaflets urging a change in Russian policy were illegal pro-drug "advertising" and seeking the closure of clean needle programs aimed at fighting the country's growing AIDS epidemic.
In a rare interview, Cherkesov acknowledged certain "mistakes" and "difficulties" as his agency has begun its work, but said most of them were public relations issues. "Society doesn't always understand what we are doing and why," he said.
On the cases against veterinarians, for example, he said, "I believe we did make a mistake, not in the application of the law but in explaining our position to the society."
As for book seizures, he said that perhaps employees needed to be more "sensitive" but also insisted the agency had targeted only books "that contain obvious propaganda information. What I mean is recipes for drug preparation, description of a person's state of mind on certain drugs as a way of advertising, which forms a desire in the reader to take these drugs."
During the Soviet era, closed borders and police-state law enforcement meant, as Cherkesov put it, that "the drug culture was virtually nonexistent." Today, Russia has a serious and rapidly growing drug problem, fed by a huge inflow of narcotics from Afghanistan and Central Asia. Estimates of the number of drug addicts in Russia range between 1 million and 4 million.
Cherkesov said he pushed Putin to create the new agency in late 2001, arguing that it was necessary not only because of the size of Russia's newfound drug habit but because of "widespread corruption" among police who were supposed to be dealing with it.
Founded in mid-2003, the agency inherited much of the staff and infrastructure of the feared tax police force, which had been dismantled after growing criticism of its nearly unchecked powers and raids by masked police on businesses.
By 2003, Cherkesov has said, the illicit Russian drug business was worth $8 billion annually. In view of that volume, Cherkesov said, the agency's main goal was to shift emphasis away from arrests of "regular drug addicts and small-time dealers" and toward "the fight with organized groups who control the drug traffic and launder the money received from drug sales."
Critics of the agency say those goals are laudable, but largely unrealized. They note that Cherkesov does not point to a single drug cartel disabled on his watch or any major decrease in the flow of drug money.
The successes he does claim include the seizure of a record 37 tons of drugs in the first seven months of 2004 and the confiscation of as much heroin in six months as in the previous two years combined. His agency has launched tens of thousands of cases, he said, only a small percentage of them causes celebre like the veterinarian cases.
The drug control department quickly earned a hard-line reputation under Cherkesov. When the Russian government made a rare move toward liberalization this spring and increased the amounts of narcotics necessary to prosecute for criminal possession, Cherkesov's deputy accused other parts of the government of acting on orders from the drug mafia.
Publicly, the agency has been the focus of attention mostly for what Lev Levinson, a human rights activist, called "absurd, groundless and harmful campaigns," such as handing out $20 fines to vendors of marijuana T-shirts and the seizure of books in the name of blocking drug "propaganda."
"The head of the agency must secretly support the legalization of drugs. How else can you explain such idiotism that is going on: the fight with veterinarians, the fight with T-shirts, the fight with books?" said Nikolai Khramov, head of Russia's libertarian-oriented Transnational Radical Party.
Khramov was arrested outside the drug agency's headquarters last month for handing out leaflets that urged legalization of marijuana and a change in Russian drug policy. A court later found him guilty of "advertising" drugs and fined him $70 in a case he hopes to appeal to the Constitutional Court as a test of free-speech guarantees.
Khramov's arrest "goes in line with declining democracy in Russia," said Aleksandr Petrov, a researcher at Human Rights Watch here. "I can't imagine you would be arrested like that five or six years ago. Now it looks like something normal under Putin."
At bookshops across the country, agents have appeared, bearing orders to confiscate books such as "Marihuana, Forbidden Medicine," a book about the medicinal uses of marijuana that was first published in the United States by Yale University Press, and "Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream," a social history about experiments with the hallucinogen written by Jay Stevens.
"They're trying to create a feeling of fear among those who sell books," said Aleksandr Kasyanenko, a senior editor at Ultra Kultura publishing house, which issued the books. "They want to convince them they should not sell books that are not approved" by the government.
But the most attention has been reserved for the veterinarian affair, in which about 20 animal doctors have been charged by the drug police since last fall. Several have been acquitted due to what judges said was a lack of evidence, an unusual outcome in a country where more than 99 percent of defendants in criminal cases are found guilty.
Duka, however, was found guilty of drug possession this week, even though a Russian government decree signed Sept. 7 legalized ketamine for anesthetic use by veterinarians. But the court did decide to give Duka a suspended sentence. "Duka's actions have ceased to be publicly dangerous," the verdict stated.
Duka said he was "relieved" that his 10-month legal ordeal was over and gratified that the government had changed its policy. As for the drug agency, he said in an interview last week, "They couldn't think of any civilized method of dealing with veterinarians. Instead of trying to establish legal order, they chose this punitive method, but only in cases where there was no threat to society."