East Europe rivals West's zest for drugs

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The Independent Online
ON 20 May, Albanian police raided a beach at Durres, on the Adriatic coast, discovered 500g of heroin in a car, and arrested the car owner. Two other people were picked up later. 'The fact that two others were detained is another sign that makes us believe that, in this case, we are dealing with a whole network of drug traffickers whose tentacles in Albania have just been revealed,' commented the Tirana newspaper Gazeta Shqiptare.

Two weeks later, an international seminar on drugs enforcement was held at Nove Zamky in southern Slovakia. Lubomir Gabris, a narcotics specialist, told reporters that the Slovak capital, Bratislava, and its environs were 'contaminated with heroin'.

Since the fall of Com munism in 1989, drug trafficking and drug abuse have become increasingly serious problems in East Europe and the former Soviet Union. The use and sale of illegal narcotics appears to be rising in

virtually all countries and gradually approaching Western levels.

Drug enforcers in Russia's Interior Ministry estimate that between 3 and 4.5 million people, or 2 to 3 per cent of the population, use drugs regularly. While amphetamines are more easily available than heroin or cocaine in Russia, drug addicts in Eastern Europe find little trouble in laying their hands on heroin, cocaine, hashish and various opiates. Even the disruption to drug trafficking within former Yugoslavia caused by the outbreak of conflict in the Balkans in 1991 does not appear to have reduced consumption.

The Balkan route, passing through Turkey, Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia along the Istanbul-Ljubljana highway, used to be the main conduit for heroin and hashish entering Western Europe. This route transported drugs produced in the so-called Golden Crescent, an area spanning Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When the UN imposed sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro in 1992 for their roles in instigating war in the Balkans, the importance of the Yugoslav route declined, according to international drug enforcers. However, traffickers - believed to include Chinese, Colombian, Italian, Turkish and other experienced smugglers - found other ways to supply drug users in Western Europe.

Many drugs, especially heroin, are being delivered from the Golden Crescent to Cyprus, Greece, Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the mainly Albanian-populated Serbian province of Kosovo.

Maciej Lubik, head of the East European office of the Brussels-based Customs Co- operation Council, said at least a quarter of heroin sold in West Europe passes through East Europe. Only about 10 per cent of the drugs intended for West European markets is intercepted.

In 1993, according to the council, authorities in East Europe seized 2,390kg of heroin, 1,809kg of cocaine and 22,819kg of cannabis. Seizures were sharply higher in Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland, but not high enough to limit amounts in circulation.

The Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Catherine Lalumiere, says Russia is turning into a base for the movement of drugs across East Europe to the West. This trade could acquire spectacular dimensions if Russian-based traffickers develop their business as marketers for the enormous cannabis and poppy crops of the Transcaucasus and the Central Asian republics.

Poppies are also grown in southern Poland and can be used as the base for a sometimes lethal intravenous drug known in slang as kompot. But Poland is becoming better known these days as a conduit for amphetamines and 'designer drugs' produced in Russia, Latvia and Poland itself.

The continuing demand for drugs in Western Europe is likely to mean that the narcotics problem in the former Communist world will grow worse in the near future. Production is increasing, drug syndicates are entrenching themselves and, for the most part, authorities are at a loss to stem the tide.