The Forgotten Country
The only stable resource supporting the national economy is migrant laborers. Their remittances account for the lion’s share of the country’s GDP.
In my view, the Soviet Union’s collapse had the most devastating impact on Tajikistan.
First, Tajikistan was one of the most heavily subsidized Soviet republics. In some years, sixty percent of the republic’s budget consisted of federal subventions, and eighty percent of the budgets of some areas in the republic were subsidized. Tajikistan could be considered Central Asia’s industrial, economic and cultural periphery. Despite the fact that a number of different enterprises were built in the republic itself, the region’s real centers were Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The steep terrain (ninety-three percent of the country is mountainous) significantly increased the costs of transporting goods and people, as well as the construction of important facilities, which was paid out of the Soviet budget.
Second, because of its specific geographical location, Tajikistan was heavily dependent on neighboring republics, especially Uzbekistan. The closure of the Uzbek border has had grave consequences for the country’s food and energy security. The railway lines to Tajikistan run through Uzbek territory, and now trains carrying vital goods idle for long periods at the borders; in cases of conflict, they are not let through at all. The once-integrated Soviet energy system, under which Tajikistan supplied surplus electrical energy to Uzbekistan during the summer, in exchange for electricity, fuels and lubricants in the winter, has been destroyed. Many of the cross-border power lines have been disconnected, and Tajikistan cannot afford natural gas and oil. It is agriculture that has primarily suffered as a result. Food prices are among the highest in the post-Soviet countries.
Third, immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse, in 1992, unrest broke out in the capital, Dushanbe, with such Islamist parties as Rastokhez (Rebirth) playing a central role. This led to a bloody civil war between the United Tajik Opposition and government forces. Both sides engaged in looting, property seizures and atrocities, resulting in the most profound social and economic trauma for the country. According the most conservative estimates, more than 175,000 people were killed in the civil war, and hundreds of thousands of people became refugees. The country’s intellectual elite—teachers, scholars, politicians and artists—fled the country, leaving it at the mercy of militant clans. Tons of narcotics and weapons constantly flow into Tajikistan from neighboring Afghanistan, and members of terrorist groups slip through the border as well. That is why in recent years government troops and police have been involved in armed clashes with drug traffickers and religious extremists in the east of the country, for example in the Pamirs in 2011 and 2012. The banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir are active in the north of Tajikistan.
The collapse of secular education and the cultural sector has led to an intensive Islamization of the population, especially in rural and suburban areas. In addition, relations with Uzbekistan have deteriorated, primarily because of the “water problem,” caused by the Tajik government’s plans to build the Ragun hydroelectric power station on the Amu Darya River. China has already received part of the Pamir Mountains that once belonged to Tajikistan, and now lays claim to another section of the mountains in the Murghab district, causing widespread discontent among local residents.
Economically, Tajik society is in the midst of a deep stagnation, caused by the mass migration of skilled laborers and young professionals. This is facilitated by the total incompetence and corruption of the authorities, who completely ignore the need to support education and health care, the construction of transportation networks, housing and roads, science, and much else. In terms of its level of development, Tajikistan has been compared to the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, the only stable resource supporting the national economy is migrant laborers, most of whom work in Russia. Their remittances account for the lion’s share of the country’s GDP.
Three relatively independent camps constitute the main political forces in Tajikistan.s The first is the political and economic elite, distinguished by its close clan and family ties, which collectively supports the current president, Emomali Rahmon. The second camp is the liberal opposition, whom we might call national-liberals. This group includes businessmen in Tajikistan itself and outside the country. Although all opposition forces are united in their desire to remove the Rahmon clan from power, this camp’s position on solving social issues and Tajikistan’s future is not clear. The opposition’s political horizon is probably limited to the demand for a change of elites. However, both groups of politicians actively employ nationalist rhetoric.
Finally, there is the Islamist underground, concentrated in different areas of the country, mainly in rural areas. This movement’s stated objective is the overthrow of the current ruling elite and the establishment of a Shariah Islamic state. The Islamist movement is quite active. Aside from terrorist activities (attacks on military convoys, murders of policemen, stockpiling of weapons), Tajik Islamists are engaged in extensive outreach work, recruiting followers on social networks, and distributing leaflets and brochures. In addition, they have extensive contacts with Islamists in neighboring Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
With the exception of a few activists, journalists and bloggers, there is practically no secular intelligentsia in Tajikistan capable of giving critical voice to a social issues agenda. Prospects for the future are thus bleak. The authorities attempt to rule the country in the repressive style of autocratic monarchs, and the only ideologies capable of consolidating society are the religious and nationalist discourses. Most likely, we can expect a local variation on Islamic revolution to be implemented here. Nearly everything in Tajikistan is ripe for this: the long years of social and economic stagnation, the collapse of the secular education system, the extremely difficult economic situation in the provinces and the unresolved conflicts left over from the civil war. There is almost no hope for a peaceful outcome.
Editor’s Note. Reader Olja Jitlina made the following comment on this article, which she has kindly permitted us to reprint here:
In the autumn of 2011, I spent six weeks in the Sughd Province of Tajikistan, in the capital city of Khujand (formerly Leninabad), and the towns of Chkalov and Taboshar, which was once a closed town where uranium was mined. There had been a huge cotton mill in Leninabad. Nowadays, a very small number of the production units, which have been bought by Italian companies, are functioning. When you travel north from Khujand, you first pass pomegranate fields, then the mineral-rich mountains begin. Near one village there are mines, which have been acquired either by a Chinese or an Italian company, depending on whom you talk to. Gold and other minerals are extracted there without compliance with any environmental and health standards. According to the locals, the soil has become unsuitable for agriculture, and the miners die after working there for five years. As you approach Taboshar, Geiger counter readings go off the scale. The uranium tails in the large mines a kilometer from this beautiful semi-ghost town were not properly buried. The locals distinguish the town’s radioactive irrigation ditches (there is no running water) and the ones whose water is suitable for farming. By Russian standards, the prices are ridiculously low. But for local, whose wages amount to twenty or thirty dollars a month, they are sky-high. People survive mainly through agriculture and remittances from migrant workers in their families.