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 dog. 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 terrorists." "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 money. 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."