By MANSUR MIROVALEV, Associated Press

REUTOV, Russia (AP) — Nikolai Leonov was walking through this Moscow suburb with his 2-year-old daughter when the toddler bent down and picked up a bloodied syringe from the grass. “I snatched it away from her a second before she could hurt herself,” Leonov said, still shaken days later.

The computer hardware shop owner is one of millions of Russians horrified by a drug abuse epidemic that has turned Russia into the world’s largest consumer of heroin.

An Associated Press-GfK poll released this month shows that nearly nine in 10 Russians (87 percent) identify drug abuse as at least a “very serious” problem in Russia today, including 55 percent describing the problem as “extremely serious.” The only other issue that worries as many Russians (85 percent) is the corruption that pervades Russian society, business and politics.

 Russians living across the vast country, of all levels of education and income, differ little when it comes to the extent of the drug abuse problem, although 91 percent of urban dwellers see it as a serious problem, compared to 82 percent of rural residents. Unprompted, 10 percent of Russians cite criminality, alcohol or drug abuse as the most important problem facing the country today, on par with the share citing basic needs such as medical care, housing and education.

 Some 2.5 million Russians are addicted to drugs, and 90 percent of them use the heroin that has flooded into Russia from Afghanistan since the late 1990s, according to government statistics. The nation with a population of 143 million consumes 70 tons of Afghan heroin every year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

 Heroin kills 80 Russians each day — or 30,000 a year — and is “as easy to buy as a Snickers” chocolate bar, Russia’s anti-drug czar Viktor Ivanov said. Meanwhile, new drugs — such as highly addictive synthetic marijuana and a cheap and lethal concoction made of codeine pills known as “crocodile” — compete with heroin and kill thousands more.

 Drug addicts are also the people Russians would least like to have as neighbors, according to the AP-GfK poll. They are seen as more undesirable than alcoholics by a margin of 87 to 77 percent.

 The AP-GfK poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications from May 25 to June 10 and was based on in-person interviews with 1,675 randomly selected adults nationwide. The results have a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

 Leonov lives with his accountant wife and two children in a recently renovated one-bedroom apartment in Reutov, a suburb of Moscow known for its Soviet-era research institutes and defense factories. A statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin still stands on the town square. Their biggest problem is the addicts who live in the neighborhood.

 Last year, he saw the body of an addict who apparently had overdosed right next to the playground where his children play. “He was there for a couple of hours before the cops showed up,” Leonov said, pointing at a wooden bench where a bespectacled elderly woman was sitting.

 Leonov claimed that the heroin that killed the addict was sold by a neighbor, who was always dirty and dressed in rags but flaunted a collection of new cell phones. His customers, mostly skinny and chain-smoking youngsters, would leave used syringes on the asphalt and occupy the benches for hours after getting their fix. The neighbor was arrested this spring, but Leonov said little has changed because the addicts apparently found another source of heroin nearby.

 The heroin epidemic caught Russia by surprise.

 Before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of drug addicts who used intravenous injections was extremely low. But the rise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan opened a floodgate of cheap heroin, which flowed into Russia through the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

 The arrival of NATO troops in Afghanistan only aggravated the situation, because coalition troops were instructed not to eradicate poppy crops for fear of driving the farmers into the ranks of the Taliban.

 Moscow for years has been urging the U.S. military in Afghanistan to take stronger action against local drug labs and smugglers, but the production of Afghan opium since NATO’s arrival has increased 40-fold, according to anti-drug czar Ivanov.

 Most of Russia’s 2.5 million drug addicts are aged 18 to 39 — a generation of Russians lost to heroin.

 ”The only thing the government can do is save the new generation, because we cannot be saved,” said Valery, a former heroin addict from the Volga River city of Samara. He gave only his first name because his support group does not allow contacts with the media.

 After a meeting with a dozen other recovering drug addicts, he recalled childhood friends who had overdosed, gone to jail or been infected with HIV after sharing contaminated needles. He remembered sharing a needle with a man who he knew had been in jail and thus had a high chance of being infected with HIV.

 ”I needed a fix that badly,” said Valery, now a barrel-chested body builder. “Only God saved me” from getting infected, he said.

 Infection is a major concern for Leonov’s family. In the past decade, the number of HIV infections in Russia has tripled in one of the world’s fastest-growing epidemics of the virus that causes AIDS, according to the United Nations. An estimated four fifths of the 980,000 Russians officially registered as HIV positive became infected through dirty needles.

 When Leonov’s wife, Yelena, was in a maternity hospital to give birth to their daughter, Nastya, she saw another pregnant woman injecting heroin brought in by her husband. Doctors at the hospital told her they would not isolate the woman because she might die or lose her child if she went through withdrawal, she said.

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On the Net: www.ap-gfkpoll.com

 

 

How the AP-GfK poll was conducted

 

The Associated Press-GfK Poll in Russia, on views of drug abuse, was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from May 25-June 10. It is based on a national random sample of 1,675 Russians age 18 and older from different interviewing locations.

 

One hundred cities and districts were initially selected, with probability proportionate to size. Next 200 urban and rural blocks were randomly selected from the 100.

 

Excluded from the block selection were remote and low-populated areas, including some high-mountain terrain, and clusters of minority and ethnic groups whose command of Russian was limited. The lack of official statistics makes it difficult to estimate the amount of non-coverage, but it is probably somewhere between 3 and 6 percent.

 

In the blocks, interviewers were assigned random routes with rules to randomly select a household for the interview. Interviewers then recorded the number of adults in the household and randomly selected an adult for the interview. Interviewers revisited the home if the selected adult was not present.

 

Interviews were conducted in Russian.

 

As done routinely in surveys, results were weighted, or adjusted, to ensure that responses accurately reflect the population’s makeup. The sample was weighted to take into account the sampling method, as well as for age and sex.

 

No more than one time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 2.9 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all adults in Russia were polled.

 

There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.

 Topline results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com and http://surveys.ap.org.

The questions and results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com .

Kayla Mueller’s brother: Swap with Taliban raised IS demands

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — The brother of an American woman who was killed after spending months as a hostage of Islamic State militants says Kayla Mueller’s situation worsened after the government traded five Taliban commanders for a captive U.S. soldier.

The militants increased their demands after the May swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Eric Mueller told NBC’s “Today” in an interview that aired Monday.

“That made the whole situation worse because that’s when the demands got greater,” he said. “They got larger. They realized that they had something.”

Mueller’s death was confirmed Feb. 10 by her family and U.S. officials. The Islamic State group claimed she died in a Jordanian airstrike, but U.S. officials have not confirmed that. The Pentagon said it didn’t know how she was killed.

The 26-year-old international aid worker, who grew up in Prescott, Arizona, was captured in August 2013 after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria.

Mueller’s brother and parents spoke to “Today” host Savannah Guthrie. The family has declined repeated requests for an interview with The Associated Press.

Mueller’s father, Carl Mueller, said that the United States’ willingness to swap for Bergdahl but not pay ransom or allow ransom to be paid for his daughter “was pretty hard to take.”

“I actually asked the president that question when we were in the White House,” he said without elaborating.

Mueller’s parents said in the interview that the U.S. government put policy ahead of American lives.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the Mueller family had been put in a difficult position by the U.S. policy against making concessions to terrorists, but he defended it as being in the best interests of the nation.

“The president is confident that his administration did do everything that was possible within the confines of that policy — using our military might, using our intelligence capability, using our diplomatic influence — to try to secure the safe release and return of Kayla Mueller,” Earnest said.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that only 3 in 10 Americans think the United States should pay a ransom to save an American hostage overseas, even if it’s the only way to rescue the hostage. A quarter of Americans say there are circumstances when the United States should directly negotiate with a terrorist group.

The poll of 1,045 adults was conducted online Jan. 29-Feb. 2. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The Obama administration has defended the Bergdahl swap. Some U.S. lawmakers were outraged by the exchange of five Taliban commanders held at the Guantanamo Bay prison for the Idaho native who left his post in Afghanistan and was captured and held by the Taliban for five years.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously supported the exchange, insisting that the United States has a sacred commitment to men and women who serve that it never will leave anyone behind on the battlefield.


AP-GfK Poll: Most back Obama plan to raise investment taxes

WASHINGTON (AP) — The rich aren’t taxed enough and the middle class is taxed too much. As for your taxes, you probably think they’re too high as well.

Those are the results of an Associated Press-GfK poll that found that most people in the United States support President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise investment taxes on high-income families.

The findings echo the populist messages of two liberal senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — being courted by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to run for president in 2016. The results also add weight to Obama’s new push to raise taxes on the rich and use some of the revenue to lower taxes on the middle class.

Obama calls his approach “middle-class economics.”

It’s not flying with Republicans in Congress, who oppose higher taxes.

But Bob Montgomery of Martinsville, Virginia, said people with higher incomes should pay more.

“I think the more you make the more taxes you should pay,” said Montgomery, who is retired after working 40 years at an auto dealership. “I can’t see where a man makes $50,000 a year pays as much taxes as somebody that makes $300,000 a year.”

According to the poll, 68 percent of those questioned said wealthy households pay too little in federal taxes; only 11 percent said the wealthy pay too much.

Also, 60 percent said middle-class households pay too much in federal taxes, while 7 percent said they paid too little.

Obama laid out a series of tax proposals as part of his 2016 budget released this month. Few are likely to win approval in the Republican-controlled Congress. But if fellow Democrats were to embrace his ideas, they could play a role in the 2016 race.

One proposal would increase capital gains taxes on households making more than $500,000. In the survey, 56 percent favored the proposal, while only 16 percent opposed it.

Democrats, at 71 percent, were the most likely to support raising taxes on capital gains. Among Republicans and independents, 46 percent supported it.

Obama’s other tax plans didn’t fare as well.

About 27 percent said they favored making estates pay capital gains taxes on assets when they are inherited, and 36 percent opposed it.

Just 19 percent said they supported the president’s aborted plan to scale back the tax benefits of popular college savings plans, 529 accounts, named after a section in federal tax law. Obama withdrew the proposal after Republicans and some Democrats in Congress opposed it.

“I think that’s a poor idea,” said Jamie Starr of suburban Atlanta. “Being that I’m a mother of five children, that is a wonderful program.”

“That’s kids trying to make their own away in this world without having student loans,” she said.

Obama’s proposal to levy a new tax on banks was supported by 47 percent of those surveyed. Only 13 percent opposed it, while 36 percent were undecided.

It’s tax season, that time of the year when people are confronted by their obligations to the government. The poll found that 56 percent of us think our own federal taxes are too high, and 4 percent said they pay too little.

If taxes are increased, a slight majority said the additional money should help pay down the national debt. Using the money to cut other taxes or fund government programs were less popular options.

Republicans, in general, are more likely than Democrats to oppose higher taxes, except when it comes to low-income families.

Only 19 percent of respondents said low-income families pay too little in federal taxes, but there was a significant split between the political parties. Just 10 percent of Democrats said low-income families pay too little, while 33 percent of Republicans said they don’t pay enough.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the poorest 20 percent of households paid less than 1 percent of all federal taxes in 2011, the latest year for data. The top 10 percent paid more than half of all federal taxes.

That’s OK, said Sen. Sanders, an independent from Vermont, because wealthy people have seen their incomes soar while the rest of the country’s wages have been much more flat.

“Most people understand that at a time when the rich are becoming much richer, the middle class is continuing to disappear,” Sanders said. “And people also understand that the very wealthy and large corporations are able to take advantage of huge loopholes, which enable them not to pay their fair share of taxes.”

Obama has been pushing to raise taxes on the rich since his first campaign for president in 2008. He has had some success. In January 2013, Obama persuaded Republicans in Congress to let income tax rates go up for families making more than $450,000 a year. It was part of a deal that made permanent a large package of tax cuts first enacted under Republican President George W. Bush.

Some liberals are looking for a candidate to push for higher taxes on the rich in the 2016 race. Sanders and Democrat Warren would fit the profile, though Warren says she is not running for president and Sanders says he has not made up his mind.

Among Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton is seen as the front-runner for the nomination; she has yet to make her candidacy official.

Clinton hasn’t offered specifics on how she would approach taxes as a candidate. But she offered a glimpse of her views following Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, when she tweeted that Obama “pointed way to an economy that works for all. Now we need to step up & deliver for the middle class. #FairShot #FairShare.”

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,045 adults was conducted online Jan. 29-Feb. 2, using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Follow Stephen Ohlemacher on Twitter: http://twitter.com/stephenatap