Sun, Jun 13, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Turkmenistan government covering up drug problem

DENIAL Behind the new marble buildings of what President Saparmurat Niyazov calls Turkmenistan's `Golden Century,' drug dealers and addicts roam the potholed streets


Kristina tapped the veins on top of her right foot and plunged in a syringe filled with cloudy fluid, slowly pressing the stopper down to deliver her dose of heroin.

"I'm home," the 29-year-old prostitute said, leaning back to let the high course through her emaciated body, satisfying the craving she's nurtured as a drug addict for eight years. The cost: the equivalent of US$2.60.

This scene in a dingy backroom in the capital Ashgabat isn't happening -- at least not according to the authoritarian government of this Central Asian nation. Since 2000, Turkmenistan has failed to report any drug seizures to international organizations and President Saparmurat Niyazov has claimed the country -- next door to Afghanistan, source of most of the world's opium -- has no drug problem.

But like much in Turkmenistan, behind the new marble buildings of what Niyazov has proclaimed the country's "Golden Century" lies a reality little touched by government riches, where drug dealers and addicts roam potholed streets lined with dilapidated houses.

Does the former Soviet republic have a drug problem?

"We have no problem -- you can go into any house and find heroin," said Kristina, the name she gives clients who find her every night on a central Ashgabat street for US$10 an hour.

Some estimates say as many as half of all Turkmen men aged 15 to 40 use heroin or opium. The country's borders with Afghanistan and Iran, another major drug transit country, are loosely controlled on both sides, if at all.

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

Any estimate of drug traffic or addiction is simply a guess as long as the government doesn't publicize statistics -- partly because of officials' fears of releasing any bad news that might displease Niyazov. President since 1985, Niyazov regularly fires ministers and bureaucrats in what analysts say is a means to prevent any possible opposition to his one-man rule.

However, there are some signs the government's head-in-the-sand policy on drugs is changing. It has accepted a new UN project funded by the US that aims to give US$1.1 million in equipment and training for border guards to help stop drug trafficking, and foreign diplomats have recently been allowed more open access to assess the frontier.

Turkmen border guards also recently were allowed to travel to the US for training and the US Drug Enforcement Agency conducted a seminar for them.

"It's small steps, but it's steps in the right direction," a western ambassador in Ashgabat said on condition of anonymity.

"They are concerned but do not recognize the extent" of the drug problem, said Paraschiva Badescu, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's ambassador to Turkmenistan. "They're not ready to discuss the causes of drug consumption."

The level of government control over every aspect of life here has led some exiled opposition critics to accuse the regime -- up to the president himself -- of involvement in drug trafficking. No proof of such a connection has ever been documented.

Drug addicts say they are afraid to seek treatment from authorities for fear of being shipped to work camps where doctors and nurses meant to be treating their addiction actually fuel their habit to make money.

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