By Alfa · Sep 27, 2004 ·
  1. Alfa

    Veterinarians, Booksellers Have Been Raid Targets

    MOSCOW - When an urgent telephone summons came in to the Bon-Pet
    clinic last October, Alexander Duka responded as always: He loaded his
    medical bag and set off in his car, prepared to operate on an injured

    But when he arrived at the address and prepared a syringe with the
    anesthetic ketamine, Duka found himself under arrest in a sting
    operation conducted by undercover agents of Russia's powerful new
    drug-fighting agency.

    Formed a year ago to bring the full force of the country's law
    enforcement to bear against a growing drug crisis, the agency --
    headed by a close friend of President Vladimir Putin from the KGB --
    has an army of 40,000, four times larger than the U.S. Drug
    Enforcement Administration.

    But at a time when Russia is reeling from terror attacks that have
    killed 1,000 people in the past two years, critics point to the new
    agency as a study in misplaced priorities and questionable tactics.

    Resources that could have been devoted to fighting big-time drug
    traffickers or cracking down on Chechen guerrillas have gone instead
    to campaigns against veterinarians, physicians and dentists; vendors
    of popular T-shirts bearing images of marijuana leaves; and bookstores
    selling tomes on the medicinal uses of illegal narcotics.

    "It's classic Russian bureaucracy: to search not where something is
    lost but where the light is hanging," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, a
    political analyst who runs the Panorama research organization in
    Moscow. "It's easier to fight against books than heroin or

    "This is a new agency that wants to show society how active they are
    and whose agents believe they can use whatever methods they want,"
    added Duka, convicted last week by a Moscow court of criminal
    possession of a drug that was then illegal but has since been
    legalized and is the only anesthetic widely available here for
    animals. "I am just one of the veterinarians who became part of this
    provocation on their part. Any veterinarian could have been in my place."

    To many critics, the Federal Drug Control Agency has become a sort of
    reincarnated KGB, employing Soviet-era tactics to suppress alternative
    points of view and running symbolic campaigns while failing to tackle
    the sources of the Russian drug business. Many of its top officials
    spent much of their careers in the KGB. Its director, Viktor
    Cherkesov, investigated Soviet dissidents as a top official in the spy

    agency's infamous 5th Directorate.

    Many of its victories have been symbolic, such as persuading a court
    to declare that leaflets urging a change in Russian policy were
    illegal pro-drug "advertising" and seeking the closure of clean-needle
    programs aimed at fighting the country's growing AIDS epidemic.

    In a rare interview, Cherkesov acknowledged certain "mistakes" and
    "difficulties" but said most were public relations issues. "Society
    doesn't always understand what we are doing and why," he said.

    On the cases against veterinarians, for example, he said, "I believe
    we did make a mistake, not in the application of the law but in
    explaining our position to the society."

    He said employees perhaps needed to be more "sensitive" during book
    seizures but insisted the agency had targeted only books "that contain
    obvious propaganda information. What I mean is recipes for drug
    preparation, description of a person's state of mind on certain drugs
    as a way of advertising, which forms a desire in the reader to take
    these drugs."

    During the Soviet era, closed borders and police-state law enforcement
    meant, as Cherkesov put it, that "the drug culture was virtually
    non-existent." Today, Russia has a serious and rapidly growing drug
    problem, fed by a huge inflow of narcotics from Afghanistan and
    Central Asia, with an estimated 1 million to 4 million addicts.

    Cherkesov said he pushed Putin to create the new agency in late 2001
    because of not only the size of Russia's newfound drug habit but also
    "widespread corruption" among police who were supposed to be dealing
    with it.

    Founded in mid-2003, the agency inherited much of the staff and
    infrastructure of the feared tax police force, which had been
    dismantled after growing criticism of its nearly unchecked powers and
    raids by masked police on businesses.

    By 2003, Cherkesov has said, the illicit Russian drug business was
    worth $8 billion annually. The agency's main goal was to shift
    emphasis away from arrests of "regular drug addicts and small-time
    dealers" and toward "the fight with organized groups who control the
    drug traffic and launder the money received from drug sales,"
    Cherkesov said.

    Critics of the agency say those goals are laudable but largely
    unrealized. They note that Cherkesov does not point to a single drug
    cartel disabled on his watch or any major decrease in the flow of drug

    The successes he does claim include the seizure of a record 37 tons of
    drugs in the first seven months of 2004 and the confiscation of as
    much heroin in six months as in the previous two years combined. His
    agency has launched tens of thousands of cases, he said, only a small
    percentage of them causes celebres like the veterinarian cases.

    Publicly, the agency has been the focus of attention mostly for what
    Lev Levinson, a human rights activist, called "absurd, groundless and
    harmful campaigns," such as handing out $20 fines to vendors of
    marijuana T-shirts and the seizure of books in the name of blocking
    drug "propaganda."

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