Saturday, February 14, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Three Different Drug Problems Now Hitting Russia Hard

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 14 – Three “drug” problems – the increasing inability of many Russians in the current economic crisis to pay for scarce medications, the rising number of Russians using illegal drugs, and mounting suspicion that illegal immigrants are involved in this traffic – are all hitting Russian society hard, Moscow officials say.
First, many Russians can no longer afford to buy the medications they need, the result of a combination of falling incomes and dramatically higher prices over the last several months, according the current issue of “Argumenty i fakty Vostochnoy Sibiri.” Indeed, the weekly says, for those whose lives depend on a particular medication, “difficult times have arrived.”
One of the reasons that prices have gone up so fast, it continues, is that at the end of last year, the government increased the amount of profit private apothecary shops could charge, and that change “has led to an increase in the first instance of the price of a number of the most widely used medications (
Another reason, one that accounts for an 11 percent rise in prices for medicine over the last month alone is the decline in ruble exchange rates, a decline that affects this sector especially hard because so many medicines or medicine components are imported given that Russia still does not produce many of the most basic ones itself.
And especially hard hit are those suffering from cancer or mental illnesses, for whom more than 70 percent of medications in most cases are imported and where domestic alternatives are not readily available. Indeed, “Argumenty i fakty” concludes, Russia may rapidly be approaching the point where “pills are [only] for the favored few.”

The second Russian “drug” problem is entirely different. It involves what officials say is a dramatic increase in the use of hard drugs like heroin by Russians and what is especially worrisome by Russian children and the growing number of illnesses and deaths such drug use entails.
Speaking on Ekho Moskvy this week, Viktor Ivanov, the head of the Federal Narcotics Control Service, said that heroin and other drugs have become so common in Russian cities that people can buy them on the street as easily as they can purchase sneakers in a store. As a result, he added, 2.5 million Russians now are addicted (
That is leading to tens of thousands of pre-mature deaths and to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases throughout the population. Not only does that result in an increasing number of personal tragedies, but it imposes serious costs on the society as a whole, including undercutting Moscow’s ability to stem the demographic decline of the Russian people.
The third Russian drug problem is related to the second: There is mounting evidence and even more rapidly increasing suspicions that illegal immigrants from Central Asia, China and south Asia are now involved in the trafficking of heroin from Afghanistan to Russian cities (
Until a decade or so ago, this trade followed the old Silk Road and largely bypassed Russia on its way to markets in Western Europe and the United States. But now, traffickers have developed “multiple pipelines” including several that pass through Russia. As the drugs pass through, some of them are sold off along the way in order to develop new markets.
As a result, some Russian officials now say openly that this constitutes “a national security threat” to the Russian Federation, a statement which may be true but one that is helping to fuel the flames of xenophobic anger against immigrants and helping to power an increase in the number of attacks by skinheads and others against them.

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