DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Afghan drug lords are smuggling more heroin through Iran to Europe, easing the burden on a traditional trafficking route through ex-Soviet Central Asia, Tajikistan's drug control chief said in an interview.
With a long, leaky border with Afghanistan and lawlessness inherited from a bloody 1992-1997 civil war, Tajikistan has long been a haven for drug smuggling out of Afghanistan which produces nearly all of the world's opium, used to make heroin.
Rustam Nazarov, head of Tajikistan's state Drug Control Agency, told Reuters in an interview the picture was now changing as Afghan drug runners turn their attention to an alternative route through Iran.
"Starting last year drug smugglers are now exploring, with a large degree of success, a new supply route for Afghan drugs to the Russian market," he said. "The new route goes through Iran, the Caucasus region and then on to Russia."
Russia, which is a huge market for Afghan heroin with its population of 142 million, is a key stop in the route linking Afghanistan with lucrative Western European markets.
Impoverished Tajikistan, which the International Crisis Group said last year was on the road to "failed-state status", has been increasingly under strain to combat trafficking, a worry for the West concerned with stability in Central Asia.
Nazarov said Iran, already long used by Afghan smugglers, has become particularly popular after relative stability returned to northern Afghan provinces that border Tajikistan.
That has forced poppy farmers to focus more on the opium growing heartlands in the violent south and look for ways of bypassing Central Asia for smuggling drugs to Europe.
"The amount of drugs seized (in Tajikistan) in 2009 is noticeably smaller than in 2008," Nazarov said, adding that some 4.5 tonnes of illicit drugs were intercepted in 2009.
Tajikistan says it seizes two-thirds of drugs passing through its territory, but some Western diplomats are skeptical, saying the number is closer to as low as 10 percent.
In Afghanistan, persuading farmers to ditch opium poppy -- which fuels the Taliban insurgency -- in favor of other crops such as wheat is a major objective for NATO allies.
Last year, the United States spent about $300 million on agriculture projects there and projected spending this year is more than $425 million, not including separate funds from U.S. military coffers handed out by troops in the field.
For tiny Tajikistan, the shifting trend represents a relief, yet Nazarov said he was bracing for another tough year ahead.
"Unfortunately the drugs situation in our country and the region as a whole solely depends on the situation in Afghanistan," he said. "Only when there is law and order in Afghanistan there will be law and order in our country."
Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Charles Dick