Although Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, it has experienced rapid rates of poverty reduction in recent years. In 2000, more than 83 percent of the population was in poverty, while in 2016, the poverty rate reduced to 31 percent. Though rewarding, the rapid reduction of monetary poverty has been unable to address non-monetary poverty issues, such as the quality or accessibility of public services and the persistent problem of drug trafficking in Tajikistan.
The Tajikistani population is faced with a lack of educational institutions, deteriorated healthcare, severely limited access to clean drinking water, high rates of childhood malnutrition, high maternal mortality, a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, high rates of tuberculosis and inadequate access to electricity, heat and roads. In addition to these daily struggles, the country continues to combat drug trafficking, an issue that is intertwined with Tajikistan’s economy, governance, culture and health.
Explaining Drug Trafficking in Tajikistan
Approximately 75 to 80 metric tons (MT) of heroin and 35 to 40 MT of opium are smuggled into Tajikistan annually, either for transfer north to Russia and Europe or for domestic consumption. Tajikistan’s geographic location, history of political unrest and high level of poverty contribute to the country’s major function as a “drug transit state.”
Tajikistan’s geographic location, with a porous border of 1,400 kilometers next to Afghanistan, has affected the country’s vulnerability for trafficking of illegal drugs to Russia, Kazakhstan and Europe. According to a 2012 estimate, 30 percent of the opiates produced in Afghanistan passed through Tajikistan. The high volume of drug trafficking in Tajikistan has now become equivalent to 30 percent of the country’s GDP.
Drug trafficking in Tajikistan is the product of a variety of interwoven problems. These problems include the continued large-scale production of opium in Tajikistan’s neighboring state of Afghanistan, a growing economic and social crisis in Tajikistan and governmental complicity contributing to the problem. Despite Tajik governmental policies to combat drug trafficking, U.S. counter-narcotics policies in Afghanistan and $200 million of U.S. military assistance since 2001, drug trafficking in Tajikistan not only continues to persist, but has increased.
Common discourse tends to overemphasize the link between the increase in drug trafficking in Tajikistan and the country’s neighbors, who are composed of Islamist groups such as the Taliban. This emphasis places responsibility for drug trafficking with terrorist organizations. However, this explanation undermines the severity of Tajikistan’s economic, social and political crisis.
In 2011, it was estimated that drug trafficking in Tajikistan generated $2.7 billion per year. For a country with an unstable population growth rate of 2.2 percent and a volatile GDP annual growth rate of 6.9 percent, the wealth generated from the drug trade is seen as profitable and legitimate among politicians and state officials.
Since the Tajikistan Civil War, which took place from May of 1992 to June of 1997, drug trafficking in Tajikistan has been a major source of income for the government. State officials, government personnel and military administrators continue to profit not only from the drug trade, but from the outside aid and efforts to combat drug trafficking.
Methods to Fight Drug Trafficking
Prior to 2004, Tajikistan’s government was limited in its methods to put an end to the drug flow. However, U.S. military assistance in the form of vehicles and specialized equipment, the creation of anti-drug squads and the construction of border outposts has served to undermine the flow of narcotics. More barriers positioned along the border has equated to more extraction opportunities for Tajik government officials, facilitated by the severe and persistent institutionalized corruption. The largest drug traffickers in Tajikistan are believed to be among the high-level officials of the Tajik government.
In addition to corrupt law enforcement, drug trafficking in Tajikistan has developed through the efforts of small traffickers, namely Tajik migrant workers who are willing to transport drugs to meet their basic needs. Government corruption and resistance to reform, as well as the country’s limited economic resources, has encouraged the development of illicit drug rings among local administrative officials.
What Can Be Done?
As long as governmental corruption is present in Tajikistan, international organizations and aid efforts have little hope of tackling drug trafficking in the country with any legitimate success. Institutionalized corruption among law enforcement officials, the presidential family and Tajik authorities is seen as a valid and necessary form of wealth production for the state.
International aid and military assistance has, thus far, failed to make any kind of a serious dent in the issue due to the governmental acceptance of drug trafficking and corruption. Drug trafficking in Tajikistan will not significantly decrease without greater emphasis placed on socio-economic development, poverty reduction efforts and the creation and maintenance of basic public services and infrastructure. These basic needs to be met include healthcare, education, transportation, heating, electricity and sanitation.
As a result, drug trafficking in Tajikistan must be fought indirectly. Organizations such as USAID are working with the Tajikistan Ministry of Health to improve basic healthcare services. By creating and building upon Tajikistan’s infrastructure and public services, international aid will be more effective in preventing the widespread corruption and drug trade prevalent within Tajikistan.
– Kara Roberts