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.
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.
Nevertheless, 80 percent of the world's morphine (one of the major opium-derived products) is consumed by six of the world's richest countries. Developing countries can often neither afford nor access it, leading some to argue that despite the INCB's analysis, global demand is yet to be met.
Soviets cultivated opiates for the masses
Nazaraliev believes that the success of the Soviet opium industry can be re-created, dismissing fears that there would be diversion to the black market and a resultant rise in the number of heroin users.
It is notoriously difficult to determine exactly how much opium was diverted to the illegal market in Soviet times. The desire to keep up appearances prevented the authorities from admitting that there were any troubles in their socialist paradise.
As Mr. Zelichenko notes, however, "if you don't look for it, you won't find it." He recalls how an overly successful drug checkpoint that he manned briefly in 1973 was closed following a phone call from Moscow. The high number of drug seizures were making a mockery of Soviet rhetoric.
Even with all the resources of an authoritarian regime, the Soviet authorities were unable to prevent some covert wheeling and dealing. Kyrgyzstan is currently ranked the fourth most-corrupt country in the world by Forbes magazine. Some say the country could quickly become a narcostate to rival Afghanistan.
"It would be ... almost impossible to control. It's no secret that the level of corruption is very high in this country," says Zelichenko.
Could the narcotic bring pain to the country?
Kyrgyzstan, lying as it does on the major drug-trafficking route from Afghanistan to Western and Russian markets, has seen a dramatic increase in heroin addiction in recent years. In 2006, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated the total number of intravenous drug users to be 25,000.
Dmitri Samarin, director of the nongovernmental organization "RANAR," which runs drug rehabilitation and harm-reduction programs in Kyrgyzstan, stresses the headway that has been made in developing more effective and fair legislation and changing social attitudes. "Tajikistan only dreams of the progress that Kyrgyzstan has made," he says.
Zelichenko says that it is imperative for Kyrgyzstan to preserve this good reputation, given its dependency on international aid and need to attract foreign investors.
"Each potential donor country that would like to invest in Kyrgyzstan will take drug policies in the country into account," he says. "They care less about any kind of freedom, but if drug cultivation is legal, for example, and the country is awash with drugs, then it is dangerous for the economy."
Should Kyrgyzstan legalize opium production for medicinal purposes, alarm bells may start to ring in the international community. Neighboring countries, some with even weaker infrastructure, may be tempted to follow this precedent, exacerbating instability in the region.
"Will [Kyrgyzstan] set up a working group to examine and debate this policy?" Zelichenko muses. "My fear is that 'wham' – a decree is issued and Kyrgyzstan finds itself in dangerous waters."