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The Russian war on drugs: Moscow gets a U.N. drug czar

A top Russian diplomat, Yuri V. Fedotov, has emerged as the front-runner in the race to become the U.N.’s new drug czar, overseeing an agency with a $250 million budget and setting the stage for a potential clash with the United States and its NATO allies over counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan, according to senior U.N.-based ...

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Getty Images
Getty Images

A top Russian diplomat, Yuri V. Fedotov, has emerged as the front-runner in the race to become the U.N.’s new drug czar, overseeing an agency with a $250 million budget and setting the stage for a potential clash with the United States and its NATO allies over counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan, according to senior U.N.-based officials.

Fedotov, Russia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, is expected to take over the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime at the end of July, when Antonio Maria Costa, steps down. The appointment — which is to be made by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon — would bring an end to a string of Italians who have run the organization for decades, and it would place Russia in a far more influential position to influence the international war on drugs.

Russia’s bid for the top U.N. anti-drug post comes as the country is confronting one of the world’s fasting-growing heroin addiction and HIV infection rates, primarily driven by its more than 1.8 million intravenous drug users. Moscow has taken a hard line on its approach to drugs, banning the use of methadone and buprenorphine, refusing to fund its own needle-exchange programs, and advocating an intensification of eradication of Afghan poppy production. NATO officials believe it is using the drug issue as a way of extending its own influence inside Afghanistan.

The tough line contrasts with the approach being pursued by the Obama administration, NATO allies and the United Nations, which favor crop substitution programs and the pursuit of drug traffickers. The U.S. — a leading proponent of opium eradication during the Bush administration — has shifted gears since 2009. "Eradication is a waste of money," Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said last year. "It might destroy some acreage, but it didn’t reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban. So we’re going to phase out eradication."

But Russia has not been impressed. In a speech to the Security Council in March, Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin expressed concern at reports that the U.S.-led coalition was planning to "cease destroying poppy fields," saying "there is a growing link between the terrorists in that country and the drug traffickers." He urged the council to expand the U.N,’s role in combating drugs, a strategy that would give Russia a greater say over the issue.

"There is no doubt today that the Afghan drug trade represents a direct, serious threat to international peace and security," Churkin said. "Therefore we must neutralize collectively, and use all available means to do so. How can we overcome the Taliban’s military potential when it continues to obtain financial resources from the illegal drug trade?"

Despite their differences, the United States and Russia have been working to improve their coordination in battling the drug trade. Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev established a presidential task force to combat drug trafficking. Viktor P. Ivanov, the director of Russia’s Federal Drug Enforcement Service, and R. Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of the National Drug Control Policy, have agreed to share intelligence on interdiction efforts in Afghanistan and Central Asia. U.N.-based officials say the United States has raised no objections to Fedotov’s appointment.

The competition for the U.N.’s top drug job has played out in secret. Officials familiar with the process say that there are more than 20 potential candidates. Fedotov — who would be the only Russian head of a major U.N. agency — has emerged at the top of a short list that includes a Spanish lawyer, Carlos Castresana, who recently resigned as the head of a U.N. anti-crime commission in Guatemala, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Colombia’s ambassador to the European Union, and a 29-year-old Brazilian lawyer, Pedro Abramovay.

Fedotov has been generally well regarded at the United Nations, where he served as then Russian ambassador Sergei Lavrov‘s deputy. Fedotov also acted as Russia’s representative on the commission overseeing the U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq. He managed U.N. affairs in the Russian foreign ministry, before being assigned to head Russia’s embassy in Britain. But Fedotov has no background in combating drugs or crime.

The appointment of a career Russian diplomat has raised concern among some of Washington’s NATO allies and private drug treatment and HIV advocacy groups, who fear Fedotov may used the position to promote Russia’s national positions. Still, diplomats say they are unlikely to antagonize Russia by openly opposing its candidate.

Activists contend that Moscow’s policy on critical issues — including a hard-line approach to drug eradication programs and methadone treatment among drug users — are out of step with U.N. approaches. They say Russia has previously used high-level appointments in international drug agencies to advance its own policies.

Drug-treatment proponents cite the case of Russia’s representative to the International Drug Control Board, Tatyana Dmitrieva, who allegedly advocated Russian positions on the independent board, which is responsible for interpreting international treaties designed to curb the illicit drug trade.

"We question Ms Dmitrieva’s independence from the Russian government which has nominated her, as she holds what are essentially government positions," Mike Trace, chair of the International Drug Policy Consortium wrote in a May 2009 letter that called for blocking her election. "Ms Dmitrieva routinely espouses positions of the Russian government on drug policy, even when they are not based on any scientific evidence." In 2005, Trace wrote, Dmitrieva co-signed a paper entitled "NO to methadone programs in Russia" that was published in a Russian newspaper for medical professionals, Meditsinskaya Gazeta. The paper included "inaccuracies, half-truths about methadone, proclaiming methadone unsafe and ineffective," he wrote. Dmitrieva succeed in her reelection bid, but died in March 2009.

U.N. diplomats said that there is no reason to believe that Fedotov would not act independently, citing other former government officials who hold high-level U.N. positions, including Anthony Lake, the new executive director of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Like Fedotov, Lake was the official U.S. candidate for the post.

Fedotov’s appointment would make him the only Russian to currently run a major U.N. agency.  Traditionally, such positions go to those countries that make large donations to the agencies. But Lavrov, now Russia’s foreign minister, has been pressing Ban for years to give more senior posts to Russians, saying they are underrepresented at the highest levels of the U.N. bureaucracy. If Ban hopes to be reelected to a second term next year, he will need the support of Russia, which has veto power.

Follow me on Twitter: @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch