Russia: Heroin and a Bleak Demographic Picture

4 MINS READMar 12, 2009 | 11:05 GMT
Heroin use in Russia has grown, and authorities see it as a threat to the social order
(OLEG NIKISHIN/Getty Images)

The head of Russia's anti-narcotics service said March 11 that the country is now the world's largest consumer of heroin. Russia is already facing a demographic crisis as birth rates continue falling and AIDS, alcohol and drugs take their toll on the country's population. The spread of heroin use will only make matters worse, and the flow of the drug into Russia is nearly impossible to stop.

Russia has become the world's biggest consumer of heroin, the head of Russia's anti-narcotics service, Victor Ivanov, said March 11. Speaking at a U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna, Ivanov said the flood of the drug from Afghanistan poses a threat to Russia's national security and is partly to blame for rising crime rates and a decline in Russia's population. Russia is suffering from an extreme demographic crisis and a decline of Russian society as a whole. Birth rates are already insufficient to sustain the population. This is compounded by rampant AIDS cases and alcohol and drug abuse — the latter creating an increasingly unhealthy population with diminishing life spans among the young, in addition to worsening fertility rates.

Statistics on drug use in Russia are very hard to come by, though in a rare release, the Russian Health Ministry says Russia has 2.5 million drug addicts out of a total population of 140 million, with most between the ages of 18 and 39. This surpasses China's 2.3 million opiate users estimated by the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Per capita, Russia's high levels of drug addiction are even more striking, as China's population is nine times greater.

Out of all narcotics, heroin is broadly considered to have the worst social effect. It is extremely addictive and often destroys not only the user, but also those around the user, thus disrupting the broader society and culture. Moreover, heroin addicts in Russia typically use needles, a practice that can contribute to the spread of HIV and AIDS. Before Russia stopped following HIV and AIDS statistics in 2005, it was estimated that there were nearly 1 million people infected with HIV in Russia. The Russian government sees increased drug use as contributing to HIV infection as well as exacerbating the demographic crisis by affecting standards of living and mortality rates.

Ivanov said that heroin and other drugs are produced mainly in Afghanistan, which is estimated to produce 93 percent of the world's heroin. He said that the international community needs to take action against Afghan narcotics, and that the U.S.-led war in the country has worked against efforts to cut off trafficking. The drug flow from Afghanistan mainly goes through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan through the rest of Central Asia or the Caspian Sea to reach Russia. The problem for the Russian government lies with the countries that transport the drugs and are actually moving them.

In the past few years, Russia has tried to step up efforts to cut this drug flow by stationing more troops in Tajikistan along the Afghan border. But neither Uzbekistan nor Turkmenistan will allow Russia the same access to their borders. The larger problem lies with who is moving the drugs. Drugs flowing from Afghanistan into Russia traditionally have been moved by Russian organized crime groups, but more frequently, both the Russian military and the Federal Security Service (FSB) are moving the drugs for monetary gain (whether for themselves or for their institutions). This is not to say that the heads of the Russian military or FSB are involved in drug running, but rather that this activity has been observed in the middle and lower tiers of these institutions.

The Kremlin is now focused on keeping legal and governmental organizations from aiding the drug flow into Russia. Russian Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika is leading part of this battle, as he is tied into neither the FSB nor the military. Chaika has shown no fear in going after the drug runners within either of these institutions, as dangerous as that may be. But having two of the most important Russian institutions contributing to the increased drug flow into Russia makes the problem nearly impossible to fight.

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