CHASING THE DRAGON
I will be the first passenger to fly from Yerevan to Stepanakert.” When Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan made his 2011 statement, referring to Stepanakert airport, it seemed at the time so out of synch with prevailing reality that most people thought the Lilliputian leader was simply being provocative.
Originally known as Khojaly Airport, the facility, destroyed in the war, was rebuilt in 2011 at a cost of $20 million188 and the local administration calls it Stepanakert Airport. Although very small, the interior has all the lush colouring and lighting that makes you think, for a second, that you are in an offshoot of Dubai International Airport.
The Irish Times reported in 2015: The blue-and-white bird-like structure of Nagorno-Karabakh’s airport perches in the Caucasus Mountains like a shining, defiant emblem of national pride. The departures screen lists an international flight to Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Members of the airport’s 120 staff stand by to pass luggage through the latest model X-ray machine.189
In response to Sargsyan’s picayune words, Baku reiterated its often repeated threat to respond to this prevarication with shelling and counter measures if the authorities try it. Under international law, and until some form of peace deal says otherwise, Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijani.190
Therefore the territory’s airspace remained under the purview of the State Civil Aviation Administration of the Republic of Azerbaijan.191 No flight permissions have been granted. Periodically, Bako Sahakyan’s administration goes in for a bit of sabre-rattling in order to provoke the Azerbaijanis: In 2017 it announced the creation of a national airline, Artsakh Air, and claimed a fleet consisted of three Boeing 737-700.192 Nothing came of the idea, but it succeeded in heightening tensions across the not-so-ceasefire line.
Not a single passenger has ever passed through Stepanakert airport. Not even the petite Sargsyan.
Yet flights do take off. The airport’s flying school has proven to be great business, its lessons involving close range sorties that move off away from Azerbaijani guns. According to airport management you can get your pilot’s licence for as little as $6,000, a snip in comparison to an average of $31,000 in the United States.193
What’s more, the flying school provides excellent cover for other, more illicit, activities.
Some airport staff have the most unusual job in aviation. Their task is to brush over any tire tracks and scuffs over footprints. The more deserted the airport looks the better.
While the rest of the world sees airports investing billions to provide towering edifices to 21st century travel, Stepanakert airport does quite the opposite. An ‘abandoned look’ is more in keeping with what they are trying to project.
Each year the International Air Transport Association, IATA, publishes annual statistics that rank the planet’s most successful airports. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International remains the busiest in terms of passengers,194 Dubai International has now surpassed Heathrow as the world’s biggest in terms of international passengers.195 Beijing Capital International Airport is on the up.
Worldwide, commercial airlines carried just over four billion passengers on scheduled flights in 2017, while during the same period commercial airlines carried just under 60 million metric tonnes of freight.196
IATA ranks hundreds of airports, tracing where people are travelling to and from, where cargo moves, and how the aviation industry shapes the world in which we live.
Not even mentioned on any list is Stepanakert airport. IATA does not even record it. Officially it handled no aircraft movements in 2017. Or before. Or since.
Yet in terms of revenue there is a fair chance that this officially unused airstrip vies with some of the bigger names on IATA’s global rankings in terms of revenue of goods handled.
The media may report on a perennial race between the likes of Singapore, Hartsfield-Jackson, Tokyo, Dubai, and Heathrow to become the world’s most important aviation hub. But it is 14 kilometres east of the town of Stepanakert where the real action is.
Stepanakert airport, formerly Khojaly airport, is not as far off the map as one may think. Indeed, the area has its share of tourists. The historic Askeran fortress197 sits along the banks of the Qarqar River. It was built by Karabakh Khanate ruler Panah Ali Khan in the 18th century to guard the town of Shusha.
The site was restored in 2002, removing bits of heritage that did not adhere to an Armenian narrative, but overall resulting in an attractive setting that may, one day, attract the sort of tourist numbers it deserves.
Among those who do visit are the off-the-grid type of tourists who like the thrill of supporting the economy of an illegal breakaway region. On the day we visited the site, however, it was only us. Scrambling to the highest point of the fortress and to the top of its watchtower, it is possible to see another interesting sight: an international airport that exclusively serves organised crime.
For us, the visit to Askeran fortress was more of a cover. The short route from Stepanakert to Askeran had a few less-tourist-oriented sites that make it of interest. On the left, one of the main bases of the Artsakh Defense Army, a somewhat decaying series of administrative buildings and facilities.
On the right, Stepanakert airport. Which brings us neatly back to the strangest job in aviation.
The airfield is surrounded by a barbed wire fence and overgrown grass and bushes. As one travels along the potholed road that runs alongside the site, it does indeed bear all the hallmarks of being little used, apart from a perennially empty terminal building.
This overgrowth helps obscure the airport. And that suits everyone.
Afghan heroin is trafficked all over the world, its production and refining centres requiring a global network of routes designed to evade detection and deliver goods onto international markets.198
The world’s major routes have developed as a result of geographic proximity, low-risk opportunities, logistics and pliability of political and law enforcement oversight of a particular country or territory. In order to survive, and indeed prosper, international crime groups have evolved increasingly intricate and well- developed routes, and become almost as responsive to any challenges presented as those who would seek to interrupt their activities.
Whatever the risks involved, however, the escalating price of heroin continues to increase the rewards for trafficking.
Continually rising retail prices in Western and Central Europe only boost profit margins, and this in turn offsets any losses incurred through unfortunate drug busts. The trend, therefore, has been diversification, to establish alternative safer routes.
A route linking Afghanistan to Iran, and encompassing refinement facilities, mostly in Pakistan, and then supply into Europe, had long represented the most profitable, shortest distance and most direct land route to consumer markets.
This route has been used to traffic opiates into the European Union since the 1970s.
The so-called Balkan route sees heroin shipped overland, by sea or by air. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime identifies three defined branches of the Balkan route. The southern branch runs through Greece, Albania and Italy, the central branch through Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, and into Italy or Austria, essentially by land, and the northern branch, weaving from Bulgaria and Romania to Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland or Germany.199
How Afghan heroin gets into lucrative Western markets in the first place is, in itself, a story.
From 2016 to 2017, the area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased by 63%, to 328,000 hectares; the estimated total production of opium shot up by 87% to 9,000 metric tonnes.200 That is the most in Afghan history.
Most of the expansion took place in Helmand province, along the hub of Afghan opium production as well as a Taliban insurgency. With 144,000 hectares cultivated with poppy, that province alone surpasses production levels in all Myanmar, the world’s second largest producer of opiates.201 But cultivation in Afghanistan expanded further throughout the country, including in the north, such as in Balkh and Jawzjan.
Shifting some 9,000 metric tonnes presents few problems in the world of legitimate business.
But when the ‘product’ being shipped is decidedly illegal, there are significant logistical issues.
Traditionally land routes crossed Afghanistan’s porous western border and traversed the vastness of Iran, relatively unmolested. Occasionally the mullahs in Tehran issued an edict that caused a crackdown – according to Amnesty International, 488 people were executed in Iran for ‘drug-related offences’ in 2011.202
Yet this is mostly a good public relations exercise. For a cash-strapped and sanctions-laden Iran, the trade offers a lucrative earner, despite being at odds with Tehran’s piety.
In March 2012, the United States Department of Treasury labelled Revolutionary Guards General Gholamreza Baghbani a drug ‘kingpin’,203 and it is well-established that it is the Revolutionary Guards lead this business in Iran.204 According to Kabul’s Salaam Times: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is working with the Taliban to set up drug trafficking networks, selling the drugs in European countries to finance the militant group, according to security officials. “Narcotics are the Taliban’s greatest source of income,” said Bashir Bizhan, a Kabul-based political analyst. “Drug trafficking is among the common objectives of Iran and the Taliban, since they have shared interests in profiting from Afghanistan’s illicit drugs. Iran, in co-operation with the Taliban, wants to make the western provinces of Afghanistan insecure, in order to prepare the land for drug cultivation in those provinces.”205
Traversing the border from Armenia to Iran has always been relatively easy, including the busy Agarak-Norduz crossing and the Meghri border post.206
Armenia abolished visa requirements for Iranian citizens in 2016.207 Statements issued by Armenia’s own National Security Service, and reports carried in Armenian media, highlight the issue of illegal activities.208, 209 Multiple smuggling cases have included connections to senior political figures in Yerevan.210
Yet it is the case that only a fraction of the deadly cargoes that are shipped through Armenian territory are seized. Political cover is everything.
Yet it does not go unnoticed. Heroin is increasingly entwined in the socio- economic fabric of the country, and hence in its political arrangements and power relations. According to The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project:
‘Armenia is a transit point for drugs smuggled to Europe...’211
In its 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the United States Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs says that it has ‘become a viable option for heroin trans-shipment routes’.212
The Central Intelligence Agency’s field listing for drugs calls the country a “transit point for illicit drugs... (seizures) suggest that the region has become a viable option for heroin trans-shipment routes.”213
The heat was, increasingly, on.
Washington’s Institute for War & Peace Reporting states: Drug abuse in Armenia, a link in the chain of countries that transits hard drugs from Afghanistan to Europe and Russia, has soared this year and threatens to fuel crime and disease.214
Armenia’s usefulness to organisations like the Revolutionary Guard, and indeed Afghan producers and foreign mafias, however, only remained while the nation provided a reliable route. As more evidence pointed to the nation serving as a hub, international authorities moved in.
United States and European Union assistance saw Armenia outwardly develop and implement an integrated border management regime, improving its ability to detect illegal narcotics shipments. Indeed, that same Department of State report boasts that ‘United States training and donated equipment contributed to an historic 927 kilogramme heroin seizure by Armenian customs officials on the Iranian-Armenian border in January 2014.’215
Since illicit heroin production takes place a long way from the main consumer markets, there is a long supply chain, involving many different groups. Considerable effort is put into interrupting this supply by law and order, so modes of transport and the routes taken may vary accordingly.
Increasing oversight in Armenia was making the nation’s place within this lucrative business somewhat difficult to maintain. The aforementioned one tonne of heroin is indicative of increasing efforts by international law enforcement to close what was a widening Armenian loophole.
As Armenia became a troubled option, so attention turned to Nagorno- Karabakh. As we ourselves witnessed at Khodaafarin Bridge, this option would prove successful and continues to operate under the radar.
Yet they were not the first to use this grey area on the fringes of Europe to an advantage. The link between Turkmenistan and an off-the-grid Nagorno- Karabakh was already well-established.
Through Nagorno-Karabakh, the traffickers slipped into Armenia, and onwards through to Bulgaria and Romania, to Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland or Germany, and the drugs ending up on the streets of Britain, France and Scandinavia. The so-called ‘northern branch’ of the traditional Balkan route spreads its deadly blizzard of white powder, heroin. Billions of dollars of this deadly product from Afghanistan, laying waste to those unfortunate enough to come under its spell.216
All that does not worry Kamchybek Kolbayev217 too greatly. He knows he is under surveillance. But that does not worry him too much either.
He goes about his day in his home country, Kyrgyzstan, living the life of the successful businessman he undoubtedly is. If you did not know, you could easily be taken in by his claim that he is in the export trade.
In a manner of speaking, he is. His yacht has been spotted in Monte Carlo, and at other hot spots around Europe when the Formula One circus is in town.
He enjoys the convenience of a private jet, darting quietly and unseen from Bishkek to Yerevan, and other outposts of his sprawling empire. Living in a plush apartment he purchased for her in Qatar, his mistress is an ex-fashion model who has legs to prove it.
With his greying hair, and a fat, almost boyishly chubby face, the impish Kyrgyz drug baron and the statuesque former Miss Odessa make an odd couple when they step out at the Qatar Opera House. He likes to turn heads.
Kolbayev is not one for monogamy, with his wife, or his mistress. On his business travels, he has a predilection for whores, enjoying seeing them using his ‘product’.
At home, however, Kolbayev likes to remain quiet. Each morning he heads out from his family home in Highland, just outside of Bishkek. Driving a nice Mercedes-Benz G-Class, he heads to Bublik, his favourite coffee shop, for a skinny latte. Only if you knew what to look for would you be aware of a dark Mercedes G-Class which trails behind, its blacked-out windows keeping nosey- parkers at bay.
Inside is Kolbayev’s ubiquitous armed security, responsible for watching over him. They look the part: big, ugly, imposing and wearing Ray-Bans so they remind themselves of Trump’s Secret Service detail. Yet this trio, and the entire security operation surrounding the 44-year-old, is mostly wasteful and for show.
He has already been compromised. From the United States Embassy on nearby Prospekt Mira, Gina Haspel’s people are already listening in the best they can.
Kolbayev is free to go about his business, speaking to his partners abroad. Kolbayev is not stupid, however. Each day he uses a disposable telephone and a fresh, unregistered chip, purchased from one of the small shops that exist along almost every street in the centre of the city. In doing so he stays one step ahead, as the Central Intelligence Agency scramble to get a handle on him.
Most likely he will chat with Ruben Tatulyan, his much trusted Armenian friend and ally, a fellow made-man, and the partner with most involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh.
On any particular morning, Kolbayev may have a business meeting or, if he feels the urge, head over to the Hyatt Regency Bishkek on Usup Abdrahmanov Street, where he has stashed away a tasty 17-year-old blonde plaything who may amuse him for a few hours. Eventually, he will return home and make some more calls, taking the pulse of his successful export ventures.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook: Turkmenistan is a “transit country for Afghan narcotics bound for Russian and Western European markets” and a “transit point for heroin precursor chemicals bound for Afghanistan.”218
The historical Turkmenistan city of Mary lies on a major drug smuggling route between Afghanistan and Europe. As well as being an important transit country Turkmenistan may produce significant quantities of opium. It is hard to tell, however, as the Government of Turkmenistan does not itself report any illicit cultivation of opium poppy or production facilities.
What is known, however, is that thanks to its excellent location the nation has proven, despite the intractable efforts of the international community, to be wide open for use by traffickers.
Afghanistan’s border with Turkmenistan is lengthy – 804 kilometres219 – and mostly desert. Turkmen drug routes are facilitated by the presence of approximately one million ethnic Turkmens in Hirat, Badghis and Faryab provinces.220 Turkmenistan also shares a 992 kilometre border with Iran,221 where an equal number of Turkmens reside,222 mainly in the Mazanderan and Khorassan provinces, close to the border. For good measure Turkmenistan has 1,768 kilometres of Caspian Sea shoreline.223
It is here that Kolbayev’s links into the Russian and Armenian mafias begin to become apparent.
Kolbayev’s influence comes through his position at the centre of the so-called Brothers’ Circle. The United States Government’s designation of a Russian- Eurasian organised crime ‘group’ that it calls the Brothers’ Circle224 has always been somewhat controversial. The Brothers’ Circle (formerly known as Family of Eleven and The Twenty) is the name given to an international criminal network that the Department of Treasury suggests operates in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the United States.225
As the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation portray it, the group bears all the hallmarks of SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), a fictional organisation featured in James Bond movies. In practice, the Brothers’ Circle is more of a loose group of overlapping affiliations.
Russia’s Federal Security Service has never seen any evidence of its existence as a specific grouping, but accepts its American cousin’s generic label in order to accommodate a host of anti-crime initiatives. The Russians refer to it Bratski Krug.
Yet the Brothers’ Circle is a relatively clearly-defined, hierarchical structure like a Japanese Yakuza or even La Cosa Nostra ‘family’, with an inter-connected network of criminal movers-and-shakers who synergise through common financial and criminal interests, from managing drug flows from Afghanistan to dividing up the revenues from protection rackets in major cities.
After all, going back to that mafia ‘family’, these are not made up just of kin: ‘family’ denotes the nature of the bonds and relationships meant to be at work. Likewise, these Brothers are often rivals, or busy doing their own thing, but they are connected through the pervasive connectivities that characterise the Russian- Eurasian underworld.
By the time that Kolbayev got involved in the scheme that would link Turkmenistan to Nagorno-Karabakh, he was already in the crosshairs of the United States and a fully-fledged vor v zakone (‘thief in law’ or ‘thief within the code’, a ‘crowned’ authority figure within the group).
He was an associate of the notorious – and murdered – Vyacheslav ‘Yaponchik’ Ivankov,226 and in the Nagorno-Karabakh drug connection would indirectly fall under the umbrella of one Aslan Ûsoyan, the infamous ‘Ded Khasan’ – ‘Grandfather Hassan’.227 Until his death in January 2013, Ded Khasan was one of the last of the true godfathers of Russian-Eurasian organised crime.
At a time when most organised crime was becoming networked, constellations of individuals and groups with no clear hierarchy or leaders (though nonetheless formidable for that), Ûsoyan was old school.
Another branch of the Balkan route goes through Iran, and possibly Central
Asian countries such as Turkmenistan, by land or over the Caspian Sea, to the countries of the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) and then into Turkey by land or through the Black Sea. From Turkey the heroin may be transported west into the European Union along one of the traditional branches of the Balkan route, or it may be shipped north on one of the ferries plying the Black Sea between Turkey and Ukraine or Moldova, says The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA),228 an agency of the European Union located in Lisbon.
EMCDDA’s ‘Opioid trafficking routes from Asia to Europe’ study makes illuminating reading for anyone living in the Caucasus region: Opiates produced in the Golden Crescent are trafficked from Iran to Turkey via Armenia... the Caucasus are now being used to smuggle large amounts of opiates from Iran to Turkey via Georgia. This could be yet another branch of the Balkan route that is being used in order to avoid the heavily policed Iranian-Turkish border. However, it is possible that a proportion of the opiates trafficked through the Caucasus is intended to be smuggled on either to the lucrative western European and Scandinavian markets, or to the large Russian market. From the Caucasus there are numerous possible links to these consumer markets by land or across the Black Sea.229
Actor Tom Cruise’s exploits when playing Trans World Airlines pilot-turned- drug runner Barry Seal in the movie American Made have popularised the concept, and even glamour, of bush pilots skimming seas, forest canopies and mountains in order to deliver their illicit cargoes. Seal, of course, was working for the Medellín Cartel and Pablo Escobar and provided a key link in the cocaine business between South America and United States markets.
American Made was based on real events. And the use of aircraft to ship narcotics is far from restricted to the Americas. The same EMCDDA report discusses analysis of 120 cases involving Europe where heroin was trafficked by air. A United States Department of Justice-funded study titled Growing Importance of Ukraine as a Transit Country for Heroin Trafficking adds that: Some heroin is also smuggled by air from Afghanistan on private aircraft or commercial airlines owned by one of Afghanistan’s warring factions.230
The United Nations International Narcotics Control Board report 2005 sites that: Afghan opiates are smuggled not only by land, but also on sea and by air...
The present era of globalisation has led to an explosion of drug trafficking. More than 420 million shipping containers traverse the seas every year, transporting 90% of the world’s cargo.231 Most carry legitimate goods, but authorities cannot inspect them all, and some are used to smuggle drugs – or just as importantly, the chemicals used to make meth and cheaply process cocoa leaves and opium poppies into cocaine and heroin.
Airplanes, submarines, speedboats, trucks, tunnels – taken as a whole, the systems used to move illegal drugs around the world comprise a logistics network likely bigger than Amazon, FedEx and UPS combined.
No wonder HBO’s Vice News Tonight dubbed this: today’s golden age of drug trafficking...232
As well as the personal enrichment of the individuals who allow the air space over Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh to be utilised for the business, the drug industry also gives financial oxygen to the regime in Stepanakert. As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty observed in ‘South Caucasus: Region Growing As Hub For International Drug Trafficking’: The money that is generated by drug smuggling is being used to purchase weapons and ammunition. It also serves to finance these separatist regimes.233
Which brings us back to a team of staff at the airport and the look of disuse that they are charged with orchestrating.
It is a warm autumn evening as we climb a crest that overlooks the supposedly almost abandoned Stepanakert airport.
Technically it is a military area. Yet by early evening, the army’s thousands of conscripts are sent home where possible so that the Artsakh Defense Army does not have the expense of feeding them. This leaves the slopes around the airport empty, apart from the ubiquitous Nagorno-Karabakh cows.
The area is deserted and things have quietened considerably. As we scoped
the area earlier in the afternoon there was the unmistakable sonic boom from shelling. The local news would say nothing of any fresh exchanges between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces, although we are led to believe that there were non-lethal exchanges frequently as a means of muscle flexing.
Hardly two months ago Armenian shelling had claimed three Azerbaijani troops in fierce clashes. Both sides saw occasional losses through shells and sniper fire.
On this particular evening all was now quiet, as we settled in on a ridge and waited. Not long passed before we could hear the unmistakable sound of a small aircraft engine approaching. The $20 million Stepanakert airport was about to see an arrival.
Serzh Sargsyan was not aboard.
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