Kyrgyzstan weighs opium as industry
As an election nears, a presidential candidate promotes the idea that the opium trade could bring cash to the impoverished Central Asian republic.
Lacking the oil or gas revenues that fill the coffers of its richer neighbors, the small Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan has always suffered from a weak economy. Locals joke that Kyrgyzstan is the one country in the world untouched by the current financial downturn: "We're pretty well protected from the crisis ... we had no industries before and we've got no industries now," they quip.Skip to next paragraph
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While this may be an exaggeration, successive governments since independence have anxiously searched for different ways to boost the economy. Until now, this has meant developing the mining industry, hydroelectric power, and tourism. But the wild poppies blooming along dilapidated Kyrgyz roads hint at a controversial resource that some suggest could help drag the country out of poverty.
Presidential candidate Zhenishbek Nazaraliev, the founder and director of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Bishkek, has proposed that the solution to Kyrgyzstan's economic woes lies in the legalization of opium cultivation for the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.
Pointing to licit opium production in countries such as Australia, India, and Turkey, Mr. Nazaraliev argues that the republic "should make the most of its God-given resources" and develop an industry to which its climate and ecology are suited.
Kyrgyzstan is not without experience when it comes to lawful opium cultivation. From the 1940s to the mid-1970s, it supplied up to 16 percent of the global market. In 1974, however, when the United Nations set about restructuring the opium trade, Soviet authorities voluntarily destroyed the poppy fields and the republic stopped producing raw opium. The relegalization issue has cropped up a number of times since Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991.
Given current President Kurmanbek Bakiev's grip on power, most see the upcoming July 23 election as a foregone conclusion, expecting a repeat of the ballot stuffing and vote-rigging that distinguished the 2007 parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, Nazaraliev's proposal to rebuild the opium industry has led to lively debate, and politicians on all sides are considering its viability. President Bakiev has not yet taken a firm public stance on the issue.
'The need is there'
Opium production is a lucrative industry; global corporations such as Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline depend on opium derivatives to manufacture cosmetics and medicines, including morphine. Nazaraliev says Kyrgyzstan would be foolish not to claim a piece of the pie.
"The need is there," he says. "We can attract the French company L'Oréal, for example, or similar Polish and Russian companies."
To Nazaraliev, the social and economic benefits go hand in hand: "It would be good for the local farmers, too. Hungry people need work and want their families to be well fed." He predicts that the industry could create up to 10,000 jobs.
Whether there is room on the global market for a newcomer is a contentious issue. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has stated that, since 2000, production has exceeded demand for licit opiates.