RUSSIANS WORRY ABOUT DRUG AGENCY'S POWER
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
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
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
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
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,"
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