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Drug crisis on Russia’s borders

Russia’s drugs problem has reached crisis point in Orenburg Region. It borders on Central Asia and is used as a transit point. Government measures against trafficking and addiction are hampered by lack of money and official attitudes

I sat down to write this article and, as a native of Orenburg, suddenly wondered when I had heard the frightening word “drugs” for the first time. Drugs in the plural, rather than the singular, that is. My parents used this word quite often in the singular: “Put down that book, it’s like a drug”, so in the Soviet period we regarded the concept as something magnetic and positive.

As soon as I left school, however, drugs began to reveal their true face. A boy in the same year as me became addicted to heroin. My fellow students liked to smoke dope after lessons. My girlfriends hung out with these smokers, and then came to see me. They couldn’t stop giggling and they ate and ate.  I too took a puff once. It had a sour taste and I didn’t like it. When we went to Pioneer camp for training sessions, the Kazakh security guards always boiled cannabis in milk during the evening. The smell was disgusting, but no one said a word against it. This was in the early 1990s.

In the first month of 2010, the Orenburg regional office of the Federal Drug Control Service published a summary of the results for 2009. They were not comforting. Drug crimes had increased by 7% in a year! Serious and especially serious crimes increased by 4%, and the number of people brought to trial for drug crimes increased by 14%!  The total area of the Orenburg Region is 124,000 sq. km, mostly steppe, and it has a low population density of just over 2 million people.  During the past year 556 kg of drugs were confiscated, of which 143 kg was heroin (this figure was just 43 kg in 2008). I tried to calculate how many drugs this was for each inhabitant, including children and the elderly… I got mixed up, but the figures were still shocking! One the one hand you realise that the law-enforcement officers are doing a great job, taking so many drugs out of circulation. But on the other hand, you can’t help wondering what they were doing before this! Even last year?! Somehow I just can’t believe that 12 months ago the situation in our region was so much better.

Orenburg region's borders

The border problem

The Orenburg Region is on the border of Europe and Asia.  It has frontiers with Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and the Chelyabinsk Oblast in the north, with Kazakhstan in the east and south, and the Samara Oblast in the west. There are problems of drug trafficking in all Russian border territories. Drugs mainly come into our region from Central Asia. I should add that Orenburg has Russia’s longest border with Kazakhstan, almost 2,000 km. This is a plus (there is close cooperation in some areas), but there are also several minuses (smuggling, drug and people trafficking, poaching).

Here is a recent example. At the end of December Orenburg law-enforcement officers carried out a special operation against drug dealers, in the style of a classic Hollywood thriller. An experienced courier went to meet a customer, noticed he was being followed and tried to escape by turning into the forest from the Orsk – Yasny village road.  This gave him a head start of several minutes, enough time to take 26 bags of drugs out of the car and bury them in the snow under a fallen tree. But when the courier went back for the 27th package of 500g of heroin he had dropped in the rush, the officers caught up with him and blocked his car. The investigation discovered that a visitor from another Central Asian country, Tajikistan, had set up a major drop-off point for drugs from Afghanistan in the Orenburg Region, which is halfway between Afghanistan and central Russia. He went back to Tajikistan regularly to collect cheap heroin from neighbouring Afghanistan. He would then bring several kilos of the drug to the Orenburg Region for handing over to other members of the chain.  They had to divide the drugs into smaller packages so the heroin could be sent on to its final destination – Moscow and other Russian regions. The officers themselves admitted that the patrolling of this area of the border (a stretch of almost 8 kms) is more of a formality. The road checkpoints may function, but in some places trains cross the border without stopping.

On the whole 2009 was a very productive year for the drugs police. But things are not so great for some Orenburgers. Owing to the crisis, the socio-economic situation is at its most tense in the east of the region, where most of the single-industry towns and villages are located.  Many people are unemployed, so it is quite understandable that 70% of unemployed Orsk residents, for example, take drugs.  Of these 80% take morphine and 6% mixtures of drugs. Only 3% of schoolchildren are officially registered at the clinic in Orsk.  Researchers have shown that throughout the region there are over 34,000 drug users in the14-35 age group. One in every four boys and one in every eight girls in Orenburg have tried marijuana. Local prices for a gram of heroin vary from 600 to 1,000 rubles. The cost of treatment can reach $5-7,000. In recent years, deaths from overdoses have declined: formerly there were 400 deaths a year, now the figure is no more than 100. Not that this is any cause for celebration.

Failure of anti-drug measures

Regional measures for the prevention of drug addiction are so minimal as to be virtually unnoticeable.  It can’t be said that there are no special regional programmes - there are, and they are scheduled to last until 2014. These include traditional measures (patriotic military camps, large-scale anti-drug campaigns, mass sporting events), and supplementary measures: a coordinated register of individuals involved in drug dealing, competitions for the best anti-drug programme from a local authority or educational institution, or the best public service advertising campaign.

In Orenburg, you won’t see a single anti-drug advertisement on TV, though we have five television companies. There’s no money in public service advertising. The 2009 regional budget only allocated 1.6 million rubles (600 000 US dollars) for the anti-drug programme, instead of the planned 4.6 million (1 600 000 US dollars). Of course, health lectures and lessons are held at all educational institutions of the region even without support from the budget. The effectiveness of this work depends on the availability of teaching materials, but manuals on drug prevention are few and far between in Orenburg educational institutions (and this is the regional centre, so not much hope for the more remote areas). Libraries mainly stock manuals published in the 1980s-1990s. Additionally, the education level of the teachers themselves in this area leaves a lot to be desired.

As it happens, even without schoolteachers, 37% of our dear children know where to buy drugs. I talked to some children myself. They promised in great confidence that if I really needed drugs, they would find out where I could get them. What horrors! Just try getting close to these dens! You’ll be lucky to escape alive! I asked my daughter, who’s in her second year at school, whether she knew what drugs were. The innocent child turned her huge eyes on her mother in surprise and… immediately wanted to know more. I briefly explained what they were, but just in case (better to be safe than sorry) I downloaded some slides on drug prevention from the internet and I’ll show them to her later. You need to know your enemy.

The local government has left it all too late again. They are so far removed from sub-cultures and their attendant acute problems; far away financially, psychologically and in age. In 2009, they showed their professional incompetence once again. “Spice” is a synthetic drug that was legal in Russia until recently. In Orenburg it was the journalists that took up the cudgels on this smoking mixture. The mayor’s office even reproached them for their “false” accusations: “From our point of view, this drug is legal. These are permitted aromatic herbs. The only punishment possible is an administrative charge.” They then issued new trade licences without punishing anyone. It would have probably ended here, if the journalists had not kept on about it. Six months later official retail outlets selling the drug were closed down. But the Spice brand, a trademark eye, can be seen with a telephone number next to it all over town, on posts, fences and even rubbish bins. If you ring the number, a pleasant male baritone replies: “Dear Orenburgers, please call back later. Soon we are expecting a supply of legal synthesized drugs from civilized Europe”.

Elena Strelnikova is a journalist based in Orenburg

About the author

Elena Strelnikova is a journalist based in Orenburg (Southern Russia)

Read On

The Drug Trade in Contemporary Russia, by Louise Shelley, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 4, No. 1, 2006

Russia finally admits to its hidden heroin epidemic, by Shaun Walker, The Independent, March 11, 2009

Russia Scorns Methadone for Heroin Addiction, by Michael Schwirtz, New York Times, July 22, 2008

Illicit Drug Trends in the Russian Federation, United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime, Regional Office for Central Asia, 2008

More On

Editor’s note:  The city of Orenburg lies on the River Ural, 1500 kilometres southeast of Moscow, close to the Russia’s border with Kazakhstan.  Capital of the Orenburg Oblast, one of Russia’s largest regions, it has population of around 600 000. Historically, Orenburg was an important military outpost on the frontier with the nomadic Kazakhs. It became the centre for the Orenburg Cossacks. Today, Orenburg is an important industrial centre. Natural gas and energy generation are among the most important local industries. Orenburg is famous for its gossamer-thin woollen scarves. 


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