By Dzhumaguly Annayev
ASHGABAT -- Trafficking, selling drugs and other powerful psychoactive substances is as harmful to Turkmenistani society as extremism and terrorism, experts and officials said.
Sociologists and law enforcement officials classify drug trafficking as a more serious crime than spreading religious extremism.
"We, Turkmenistanis are tolerant. We bear no animosity towards different lifestyles, customs, or beliefs, but at the same time we reject, we do not tolerate any sort of violence, cruelty, or extremism," said Gulnabat Karabayeva, a sociologist from Ashgabat.
According to her research, it's more difficult for Turkmenistan's resist the "temptation to earn big money", associated with drugs. That's why it's is "more dangerous evil than extremism", she said.
The country's adult population remembers Saparmurat Niyazov's rule (head of Turkmenistani government from 1985 until his death in 2006), when drugs were so widespread and easy to obtain that the nation's gene pool faced the real threat of wholesale degradation and extermination, specialists said. During those years, several drug dealing locations could be found on every street and in every neighborhood.
"At that time, we were really on the brink of catastrophe," 60-year-old Amandurdy Gochyyev of Ashgabat said. "Drugs flowed freely across the border from neighbouring states, especially from Afghanistan, and in cities and villages one hit of drugs sold for less than a can of beer."
Upon coming to power in 2007, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a doctor by education, took serious measures to deal with the issue by establishing a separate anti-drug trafficking state agency directly under his supervision in January 2008.
Annaberdy Orazdurdyyev, a journalist from Ashgabat, believes that it was important that the new agency was specially empowered, acted independently, and was not under the supervision of corrupt Ministry of Interior Affairs (MVD) and Ministry of National Security (MNB) officials.
"The fact that the service was independent of other law enforcement agencies and the fact that a number of laws created tougher punishments for drug sale crimes enabled the state drug control agency to generate positive results," he said.
Before, drug traffickers used to face only a year or two in prison before being offered amnesty for good behavior, returning to their criminal business. But Berdymukhamedov has changed regulations: drug traffickers and small-time dealers have been denied amnesty and the chance to leave prison early.
According to existing data, state drug control agency officials managed to eliminate almost all drug dealing locations and drug dens over the past seven years, sending more than 5,000 major dealers and suppliers as well as small-time dealers to prison.
In 2008, the country established the State Illegal Drug Control Service. During its first years, the service used to seize and publicly destroy up to two tons of drugs every year.
"I do agree that it has, to some degree, caused our prisons to overflow, but on the other hand society has now been freed and swept clean of drugs," said Merdan N., a former senior detective with the former State Service for the Protection of Healthy Society's Department of Regional Management.
Merdan is proud of the fact that he contributed to freeing society of drugs by arresting not only drug traffickers in his region, but also identifying their protectors in other law enforcement agencies.
In 2013, the service was renamed as the State Service for the Protection of Healthy Society. This year, the service was abolished, and its anti-drug functions were transferred to MVD.
Orazdurdyyev hopes the mission started by the recently disbanded state service will be continued as successfully as before, noting about recent operation aired on TV October 4, during which security forces arrested "people carrying about 30kg of opium and more than 40,000 tramadol pills, which is a known narcotic [painkiller]".
In recent years, Turkmenistan has also markedly increased security on the more than 740km border with Afghanistan - the primary producer and supplier of drugs in both the region and the world, official said. Turkmenistan has equipped border checkpoints and customs posts with gear and modern equipment for detecting drugs, weapons, and explosives that are banned from import.
Former detective Merdan N. also believes that Turkmenistan will succeed in entirely ridding the country of drugs.
"We'll keep hoping that he [the president] will continue to be as demanding as before with MVD and MNB leaders for results and success in combating drugs and drug traffickers," he said.