Organised crime in Central Asia: its impact on Europe

Organised crime has significant implications for the security of Europe and the wellbeing of its citizens. This is the case not only with criminal activities taking place within Europe but also with activities further away. International organised crime is the second most powerful sector in the world economy after the military industry and is driven largely by the trade in illegal narcotics. Narcotics trafficking in itself constitutes between US$500 billion and US$1.5 trillion, according to the United Nations — a sum that is mainly laundered through the international financial system on a yearly basis.

The narcotics trade has functioned as a ‘ploughshare’ for other illegal activities, due to its profitability and low risks for the organisers. It is also increasingly closely connected not only to other organised crimes, such as human trafficking and the smuggling of small arms and nuclear and biological components, but also to ‘softer’ threats to human security such as AIDS and hepatitis C.

The links between economic crime, corruption, the arming of terrorists and criminal gangs, AIDS/HIV and organised crime (specifically the narcotics trade from Afghanistan) are clear. To prevent organised crime and negate its potential from destabilising Europe it is not enough to close the borders towards the outside world, as criminal networks have proved that they can breach such a wall. It is necessary to engage these criminal activities at their origin. Europe has developed a sense of imagined security from the effects of criminal activities in regions outside Europe. This is a problem, as the dangers to European society have to be evaluated on their merits if there is to be a chance to combat international organised crime and its effects.

Organised crime and the narcotics trade

Opium production in Afghanistan, which constitutes 70% of global production, provides virtually all of Europe’s opium and heroin despite Afghanistan’s relative remoteness. The Afghan narcotics trade is highly hierarchical and effectively organised. European and Turkish organisations have representatives all along the route from the production sites in Afghanistan to consumers in Europe, Iran and Russia. The networks that have been formed to smuggle and produce narcotics (heroin as well as other kinds of drugs), have consolidated their chains of transport to a degree that is most difficult to penetrate. Some sections of the networks are ethnically based, such as in Baluchistan in Afghanistan/Pakistan or the Albanian groups in Europe, but there are also more ethnically diverse networks such as the mafia originating from the former Soviet Union.

Regardless of their composition and organisational structure, the networks have diversified their trade to include smuggling of persons, weapons and other lucrative commodities that are available. The logistics behind the networks and the smuggling routes are the primary product for the criminals, not necessarily the drugs or weapons that are interchangeable if prices for a specific commodity increases or decreases.

Impact on Europe

It has never been denied that this has an impact on Europe, but the extent of the impact has at many times been neglected, with the exception of customs and police forces. Most of the opium and the heroin used by Europeans originates from Afghanistan (see RJHM March 2004, pp10-12) and is transported through Iran or Central Asia/Russia to consumers in Europe. The transnational consequences of the trade have not been highlighted to a satisfactory extent. Afghanistan today produces between 3,600-4,000t of opium that is partly refined into heroin; a large part of this is absorbed along the transit routes in Russia and Iran. The consequences for both of these countries have been devastating but there is a risk that more heroin will reach Europe, as markets in these states are flooded and production increases in Afghanistan.

Regardless of whether the European drug trade increases or declines, the consequences are staggering even today. Financially, Europe has seen an increase of illegal capital —Europol and Interpol have warned of its continued proliferation on the continent. European banks and other financial institutions are utilised to a high degree for laundering illegal assets, not because they are necessarily criminal but because the international (and European) legislation is weak. What makes Europe particularly interesting is the availability of investment objects to launder illegal capital (as in the US, Australia and Singapore). A future problem is economic productivity and the allocation of resources to drug abuse treatment. Productivity has decreased rapidly in Russia, Central Asia and Iran due a considerable part of the young population in these three areas being engaged in drug use. A great deal of resources is invested in anti-drug measures and treatment of drug users — this is a growing problem in Europe. The result is that increasingly large portions of European national budgets are invested in dealing with the consequences of the drug trade.

Political corruption has become a tremendous problem in Russia, Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran as a consequence of the criminal networks. Political corruption among the new member states of EU is also an obvious problem. Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas faced impeachment in December 2003 for his alleged links with Russian organised crime. It is evident that political corruption organised by criminal networks is not as strong in Europe as in the production and transit states, but as the criminal economy is growing in Europe, measures need to be taken to prevent this from becoming a reality. Afghanistan, Tajikistan and probably Turkmenistan are states where significant institutions are controlled by drug networks and their financial revenues, and it is more of a rule than an exception that politicians are bought by the criminal networks. International criminal networks base their success on the level of co-optation of states (narco-states) or government officials at different levels.

International terrorism is closely linked with the narcotics trade, simply because drugs are lucrative, easy to smuggle and associated with low risks. The war on terrorism has highlighted the funding activities of terrorist groups, and the US State Department claims that 12 out of 28 terrorist organisations are funded by the narcotics trade. As the war against terrorism continues, alternate funding sources will deplete and terrorist organisations will likely be forced to engage in drug trade to an even higher extent. Closely linked to these terrorist groups is the link between organised crime and the proliferation of small arms in Central Asia, Russia and Afghanistan. Weapons and drugs are used as hard currency in the region, especially among several terrorist and separatist organisations. Narco-terrorism, however, is an international phenomenon in which both its finances and its military actions have international implications.

Human security is one of the more apparent risks when talking about international crime and narcotics trafficking. Despite this, there is very little discussion at the policy level of the transnational consequences of international crime. A large percentage of the violent crimes in Europe are attributed by the police to be associated to the international criminal networks and the drug trade. This is a growing difficulty but the health problem is more important. Russia has an estimated 3-5 million narcotics users, an estimated 50-90% of the HIV/AIDS cases are intravenous users within Russia. Demographic studies show that if the epidemic develops as projected, 10 million people will have died of AIDS in Russia by 2020. The UN has, however, noted that Russia could in the worst case have 10% of its population infected by HIV/AIDS by 2010 unless preventative measures are taken. This is a tremendous problem for Europe, since Russia is the last link in the transit route to Europe and what exists in Russia will come to Europe, especially diseases that travel without passports and recognise no borders. If the number of intravenous drug users increases due to the increased availability and lower prices of drugs, so will the number of HIV/AIDS cases, especially as these are heavy users normally outside the health system.

A losing battle?

The effects of transnational crime are spreading rapidly in Europe but especially in the production and transit states. The level of political co-optation and humanitarian disasters in Central Asia (and increasingly at Europe’s borders) is staggering, and little is done by the political community to combat the effects and its source. If successful eradication is to be accomplished the challenge must be met beyond Europe’s borders, preferably at the sites of production. The lack of a political will to deal with these problems, despite continuing reports from the police and intelligence communities in Europe and beyond, strengthens the position of the criminals. It will not be enough to half-heartedly look at the consumer side, even if this is one necessary aspect of it.

Criminal networks are to a great extent international in their structure - if such a problem is to be effectively dealt with, the countermeasures need to be organised according to similar lines. Increased international co-operation, rather than excluding different actors, is the single most effective method to combat the problem. However, the European states are currently one or two steps behind the criminal elements.

Niklas Swanström is an associate professor in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden, and director of the Program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies

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