Interview

Interview: Viktor Ivanov

Putin's drug czar gets heated over California pot and Afghan poppies.

Russia's top drug official warned in an interview with Foreign Policy on Friday of what he called the "catastrophic" consequences of marijuana legalization measures like California's upcoming ballot initiative, saying darkly that widespread legal drug use would produce "psychiatric deviations" and will only encourage drug addiction. 

Viktor Ivanov, a former KGB officer and prominent member of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's inner circle, even took the unusual step of going to Los Angeles earlier this week to "conduct a campaign against legalizing marijuana in California," as he said in the interview. He also came to Washington this week to meet with U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and U.S. Afghan envoy Richard Holbrooke to discuss anti-poppy measures in Afghanistan and call for an intensified program of aerial eradication.

The United States has largely abandoned eradicating the poppy crop in favor of a narrower strategy focusing on cutting off funding to the Taliban and cracking down on traffickers. Ivanov says that isn't enough to counter the flow of heroin into Russia, which kills tens of thousands of users every year. 

But California's laxity, it seems, was particularly startling to him. "I hadn't known about it before and I was absolutely shocked when I was in the city and saw these posters saying that you can get marijuana for medical purposes," he said. He met with Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sheriff Leroy Baca to voice Russia's opposition to the measure. Noting that U.S. President Barack Obama has also expressed his opposition to legalization, Ivanov described it as "one of the cases where Russia and the U.S. agree completely."

He continued: "I'm afraid that the consequences of [legalization] will be catastrophic. Even the Netherlands, where they sell marijuana legally in coffee shops, they are now reversing on this. Because there, and everywhere, drug addiction is becoming stronger and the people who are addicted develop psychiatric deviations. They say, 'What does God do when he wants to punish a person? He deprives him of his mind.'"

Ivanov, who served in Afghanistan with the KGB during the Soviet Union's war in the 1980s expressed skepticism about the war effort in Afghanistan. "During the last five years the perception of the foreign powers by the local population has changed," he said. "Now they take it as a military occupation of their country."  

This was Ivanov's sixth meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Kerlikowske. In this meeting, Ivanov sought to push the United States to resume aerial eradication campaigns against poppy growing in Afghanistan. He thinks the United States should use "methods of defoliation similar to what's used in Colombia."

According to Russian figures, heroin, nearly all of it from Afghanistan, kills 30,000 Russians every year, Ivanov said. He also believes that the Central Asian states between Russia and Afghanistan are being "destroyed from the inside" by the violence and crime associated with the drug trade.

While Ivanov stressed that coordination with the U.S. side is improving, he also noted "American officials are quite disciplined and they always stick with the strategy as it's been laid out."

That seems to apply in particular to the State Department. After a meeting last year with Holbrooke -- an outspoken skeptic of the utility of poppy eradication -- Ivanov said that the envoy had "confirmed our fears that they are not prepared to destroy the production of drugs in Afghanistan." This time, Ivanov noted that, as "[Holbrooke] was a bit short of time, we started the meeting with him; then he handed us to his deputy." He said the two still don't completely see eye to eye.

"The argument that now NATO and Holbrooke are using is that if we destroy poppy crops it will deprive peasants of their livelihood. It sounds so touching that they're taking care of the peasants, but it's not to be taken seriously," he says. "Those peasants do not profit from poppy. They make at most $70 per year. Those who profit from it are the landlords living in Europe and American and the Gulf countries. If we could give the land back to the Afghan government and provide these peasants with wheat, they could easily make their $70 a year growing wheat, not poppy."

Ivanov also said reports of progress on shutting down opium laboratories have been exaggerated.

"One of the results we discussed is a 92 percent increase in the number of laboratories destroyed. From the point of view of arithmetic, this is the case. In reality it looks a little bit different." According to Ivanov, the number of identified drug laboratories operating in Afghanistan has actually increased from 175 in 2008 to 425 today. The real number is likely much higher. He described the efforts to crack down on laboratories so far as a "drop in the ocean."

According to Ivanov, Russian authorities have passed on the location -- including GPS coordinates -- of several known Afghan drug laboratories to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But because resources for drug eradication are controlled by NATO forces, no steps have been taken to eradicate them, he claims.

Ivanov said he also has doubts about the very premise of the war in Afghanistan. "[In 2001] it was explained that the Taliban was a terrorist organization and that's why [the invasion] was necessary. Now many years later, it turns out that there's a so-called moderate Taliban -- moderate terrorists -- who can be reintegrated back into power. Does that mean we made a mistake nine years ago and all this time we have been correcting it?"

Ivanov suggested that the invasion of Afghanistan might have been partly motivated Western companies seeking to exploit Central Asian energy resources. "If we look back before the invasion, starting in 1997, a number of American companies were negotiating with the Taliban about putting in a pipeline in Afghanistan ... bringing gas from Turkmenistan south toward India. There were negotiations in Kabul and Houston and Washington. In 2001, those negotiations ended in a deadlock because the American side wanted a bigger pipeline, while the Taliban wanted smaller pipes in order to provide smaller towns and villages with gas. From the American side, the negotiator was Unocal and the negotiator from that company was the employee of that company, Hamid Karzai."

It has been suggested several times, notably in Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, that Karzai may have once worked as a consultant for Unocal, but both the company and the Afghan president deny any connection

Despite his staunch support for anti-drug measures, Ivanov also said that efforts so far have not borne much fruit and might in fact be making the problem worse. 

"In this one single location, 95 percent of global heroin production is taking place," he told FP. "Ironically, it's the same place where the efforts of the global community are concentrated. It's like a surgeon who has decided to treat one organ but as a result has cut up all the organs around it."

GERARD CERLES/AFP/Getty Images

Interview

Interview: Viktoria Mohacsi

A Roma political leader and celebrated human rights campaigner speaks to FP on hate crimes, segregation, and why Europe needs to protect its most vulnerable minority.

In recent weeks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has come under fire from the European Union and human rights organizations for its expulsion of Roma migrants. Less attention has focused on the deteriorating situation for the Roma in their home countries in Eastern Europe. A newly released report from the U.S. NGO Human Rights First documents a recent uptick in hate crimes -- including murder and arson -- directed against the Roma community in Hungary. The upsurge in violence coincides with the growing influence of the far-right Jobbik party, which has been eager to pin the country'seconomic woes on the "Roma problem."

This week, Hungarian Roma political leader Viktoria Mohacsi visited the United States to receive Human Rights First's 2010 human rights award. Mohacsi represented Hungary in the European Parliament from 2004 to 2009, when she lost her seat as a result of Jobbik's electoral gains. She spoke with FP about the challenges facing the Roma in Hungary and throughout Europe.

Foreign Policy: What message are you looking to bring on your visit to the United States?

Viktoria Mohasci: This is the biggest opportunity I've had to request help [from the U.S. government] to combat hate crimes in Hungary. We have an ongoing racist serial-killing spree happening in my country which has not ended. The FBI cooperated with the Hungarian police in the investigation. That cooperation was very successful and that's why they caught the killers. Four perpetrators were caught last August. But even since they've been caught, the hate crimes [against Roma] are continuing. The police have found six dead bodies and nine instances where Molotov cocktails have been thrown at houses. And according to my research, there have been at least three times the amount of attacks than what the police have reported.

Now, [far-right political party] Jobbik, who received 15 percent of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections are promoting the idea of "gypsy crime" and the whole atmosphere in my country is unbelievable. It's not comfortable for a Romany person to live in Hungary.

This is why I've come here to raise the issue with the State Department. We've had very good cooperation in the past and I hope that with this cooperation we can create pressure to make combating hate crime part of the planned EU-Roma strategy.

FP: To what do you attribute the rise of Jobbik and this recent wave of anti-Roma sentiment?

VM: The main reason is because of the economic crisis. So many people lost their jobs -- like everywhere in the world. Some people are blaming my people for the lack of jobs. Of course, we didn't have jobs 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or now. [The Roma] haven't lost anything with the economic crisis. We've never had anything!

FP: Is that what's going on in France as well?

VM: Yes, partly. But France is just the latest place where this is happened. I believe that many of the people being expelled from France had previously been in Italy. This is a group [of Roma] that came from the Balkans, as well as from Romania and Bulgaria. We fought against the fingerprinting and other policies in Italy because we knew that if we let this pass, other states would copy. [In 2008, Italy's parliament passed a controversial measure to fingerprint all Roma in the country as part of an anti-crime campaign.]

What I want is for these people to be treated as EU citizens. If they're found committing a crime, they should be treated as criminals -- but the whole group should not be targeted as "gypsy criminals." Most of the people who left Italy went to France, Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany. We've heard already a statement from German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has threatened migrants, saying that they will be punished for not integrating into society. Switzerland has almost entirely expelled them. These probably won't be the last.

FP: Why is anti-Romany racism so engrained in Hungary?

VM: When we joined the EU, we put together a desegregation plan based on the experience of the United States. We took a survey and found that94 percent of Hungarians didn't want their children sitting next to Romany kids in school. We knew that this would be the hardest issue in the country, but we knew that without mixing them into schools, full integration would never be successful.

Twent-five to 30 percent of Romany kids have been declared mentally disabled by the [Hungarian education system]. For the general population in Europe, the average is 3 percent. The World Health Organization has said that it's not physically possible for one population to have more than 3 percent. This is because of prejudice as well as the fact that school districts can get extra funding for having more special needs kids.

Sometimes, people say that Romany parents want their children to be declared disabled because they'll get extra state benefits. This is a lie. The money goes into the pockets of the local government.

The students themselves wind up in lower-quality ghetto schools. That's why I feel very alone. There are no Romany teachers, doctors, judges, or human rights activists. There's nobody who can be successful.

FP: Have Roma tried to become more active in the political system?

VM: My fellow MPs and MEPs would always tell me, "Teach your people to vote. You have to teach them to participate." But my research discovered that the election percentages were exactly the same. In EU elections, 60 percent of Roma people voted and 60 percent of [the total population] voted. It's the same thing when you hear people say that our kids are not attending school. Less than 1 percent of Romany kids are not attending school in Hungary.

Of course, I don't know how it is in other countries. If I get the chance, I'd like to extend this research to all of the 27 EU member states.

FP: But if Roma are voting, why aren't Roma politicians more influential at the national level?

VM: All the major political parties [in Hungary] choose one Roma representative. Most of these are not effective because the parties always choose someone who won't speak up too loudly. I heard one of them say, "We have to teach the Romany people to work before we can have integration." A Romany politician said this! It's shameful. But this is because they were chosen by the party. I was chosen by the Liberals, and we wound up fighting a lot because they thought I would be silent and not get involved. When they saw I was going to independently pursue my issues, they wanted to kick me out. We've created several Romany parties, but none of them have been successful.

FP: How have the open borders in the EU changed life for your community?

VM: People thought that they could have a better life in the West. Instead they experience discrimination, exclusion, having their kids taken away from them by authorities. It's worse for us today than it was when the border was closed under communism.

DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images