03.09.2009TajikistanA State Facing Collapse?The global crisis has exacerbated the serious structural problems of Tajikistan to such an extent that experts are warning that the country might turn into a failed state. That runs counter to the hopes in NATO and Europe that Tajikistan, which is Afghanistan's neighbour to the north, might help to stabilise the region. By Edda Schlager
Afghan luxury: the Ishkashim bazaar on the Tajik-Afghan border The Ishkashim bazaar on the Tajik-Afghan border in Pamir is a highlight of the week, especially for the Tajiks on the northern side of the border. Early in the morning, rickety taxis drive out of town towards the border post on the Tajik side of the Panj river. There's a gate with Tajik border guards, a bridge over the river, and then you're in Afghanistan, in a market-place which is no bigger than a football field.
Although it's only a dusty piece of no-mans-land, it would be good competition for any oriental bazaar. There's haggling, goods are praised above the skies, and there are curses when the price remains too high.
Afghans as traders
The Tajiks get everything they can't get in Ishkashim from the Afghan traders: carpets, textiles, household appliances, radios, CDs and DVDs, grain, potatoes. The Afghans bring over everything which they know their Tajik neighbours want to buy.
"Things are simply cheaper than they are back home," says one Tajik woman who's examining a colourful piece of cloth. "That's why we come here regularly." She stocks up with metres of cloth from which she will later make clothes for herself. The goods come from Pakistan, India and China, says the Afghan trader, who lives in Badakhshan, a province in the very north-east of Afghanistan.
Although the Afghans have to deal with much more difficult structural, economic and political conditions in their country than the Tajiks do, here in Ishkashim they seem much more businesslike and on top of things than their neighbours.
Stable bulwark against Afghan instability?
Imperial debris: As in Soviet times, Tajikistan is seen as the last bastion of western values before the orient Afghanistan is seen as Tajikistan's weak neighbour: the chaos begins over the border – that's the way the Tajiks see it too. But the economic situation in Tajikistan is scarcely better than in Afghanistan. As in Soviet times, Tajikistan, the most southern country in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), is seen as the last bastion of western values before the orient, and as a stable bulwark against Afghan instability. Europe shares that view, but how far can the country live up to its role?
In February this year, the International Crisis Group (ICG) published a study in which it warned of the possible collapse of the Tajik state. The European Union regards Tajikistan – which, together with its neighbours, has been brought to European and especially German attention through the EU's Central Asian Strategy – as a reliable and stabilising partner in the region. "But theoretically", says the ICG study, "the Rakhmon regime could collapse at any moment."
The governing clique and its murky origins
President Emomalii Rakhmon came to power following the Tajik civil war which lasted from 1992 to 1997. The country was being torn apart between Islamist fundamentalists, former Soviet cadres and a vaguely pro-Western opposition. In the end, it was Rakhmon's supporters who won through. Rakhmon himself was a left-over from the Soviet era; he had been president since 1994 and continues to hold power with a clique of trusted allies.
"A political and economic elite without any qualifications": Tajikistan's President Emomalii Rakhmon Shokirjon Hakimov, a political scientist and head of the faculty of law and international relations at the Tajik International University in Dushanbe, takes a critical view of the background of the governing clique. "These people did well for themselves during the civil war," he says. "They had no education, no political experience, and they turned into the country's political and economic elite without any qualifications."
The Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw (CES) also sees Tajikistan in a precarious situation, and considers that Rakhmon bears the responsibility. The problems of the country, says the Centre, stem from nepotism, the clan system, corruption, extreme bureaucracy and the involvement of state elements in drug smuggling from Afghanistan. "The president and his clan don't just control the political life of the country, they control its economy," it concludes. All key areas are in the hands of "Rakhmon's people."
Economic crisis and structural problems
According to the International Monetary Fund, Tajikistan is currently experiencing a serious shock to its system, caused by the global economic crisis, but significantly exacerbated by internal structural problems.
Dow Jones Blues in the Tajik steppe: the former Soviet republic has been hit hard by the current economic crisis Gross Domestic Product (GDP) sank 50 percent in the first months of this year compared to 2008; industrial production fell by 18 percent. The country has been rocked by the drop in transfers from Tajik workers abroad, many of whom have had to return from Russia or Kazakhstan as a result of the effects of the global crisis on those countries.
The IMF says that there were 1.5 million Tajiks working abroad in 2008 – more than half the country's working population. According to conservative estimates, their transfers amounted to more than two billion US dollars, 43 percent of the Tajik GDP.
The returning Tajiks are finding their country in a state which is scarcely likely to contribute to stability. There have been repeated demonstrations in recent months calling Rakhmon's power into question, especially in Pamir. The Tajiks until now have suffered the conditions in the country since the end of the traumatic civil war with what can only be called humility.
"Afghanistan has moved ahead"
Gisela Hayfa, head of the German technical aid organisation GTZ in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, says that she considers Tajikistan politically secure. "It's a stable country," she says, "perhaps too stable." At the same time, she doesn't consider appropriate the rosy-eyed view from a distance adopted by the West and above all by the EU. They see Tajikistan as no longer being a developing country, but a transition state. That, she says, is far from the truth.
"Without economic development, liberty and democracy are not possible." Work-seekers in barren landscape "Civil society is much better developed in Afghanistan, and the press is more critical and freer than in Tajikistan," she says.
Umet Babakhanov, founder of the Tajik media group Asia Plus, admits to self-censorship. "We are continually walking a tightrope," he says. "Can I deal with this or that topic, or will there be problems? Sometimes we say: OK let's put in those extra two words. Another time we'll leave them out. There's a fear of speaking openly in the whole of society."
The Asia Plus newspaper and radio station have followed the development of the crisis in Tajikistan in a way that few other media have done. They've asked questions – and seldom received satisfactory answers. One evergreen topic is the energy crisis.
Dilapidated infrastructure and no investment
The government failed last winter, as it did in 2007/8, to solve the country's energy problems. Even in the capital Dushanbe, electricity was turned off for hours at a time for a period of weeks. Just a few kilometres from Dushanbe, people had no electricity at all.
Tajikistan's private economy is completely underdeveloped and dogged by bureaucracy and corruption. Pictured: A hospital pharmacy in the Murghob district The reason is the country's dilapidated infrastructure. The country cannot afford to invest from its own resources in hydro-electric power, and water is the only domestically available power source. And international investors have been dropping out of projects such as the hydro-electric plants in Rogun or Sangtuda or putting them off, as a result of the economic insecurity.
The private economy is completely underdeveloped and dogged by bureaucracy and corruption. Small and medium-sized businesses have to overcome many hurdles and individual initiative is systematically inhibited. "But without economic development," says Babakhanov, "liberty and democracy are not possible."
The CES in Warsaw warns that, if the situation gets any worse, Tajikistan could turn in to a failed state.
A new front against NATO troops?
What does this mean though for the European Union and NATO? Both would lose a partner in Central Asia which, until now, has been seen as an island of stability. NATO especially would lose an essential backer for its operations in Afghanistan. Until now, Tajikistan has served as an important transport and supply corridor from Central Asia to Afghanistan.
The CES also argues that the Taliban or al-Qaeda could expand their activities in the region and thus open a new front against NATO troops.
An island of stability? Until now, Tajikistan has served as an important transport and supply corridor from Central Asia to Afghanistan Tajikistan has always been a secular state, in which, although Islam is culturally influential, religion has been kept out of politics. The Tajik government, like those of the other Central Asian states, does not want to see religious extremist developments. But it uses its struggle against the extremists to force opponents of the government to conform with the official line.
In March this year, the country passed a new law on religions, which made it more difficult to register religious groups and which allowed the state to censor religious texts and to control religious ritual. While most Tajiks are Sunni Muslims, as are populations of the other Central Asian nations, there are also Shiites and Jews to be found. International observers criticise the new law, saying it serves merely to restrict religious freedom.
Return to patriarchal structures
Muslim headscarves are officially banned in Tajik schools and universities. But as a result of the difficult economic situation, families are returning to the old patriarchal structures. That leads particularly to disadvantages for women. The number of girls going to school and universities is going down. The shortage of jobs means that the jobs which are left go to men.
Marzia, who comes from Dushanbe, has found her own way of avoiding the conditions in her country. She's working for an international aid organisation in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and has married an Afghan man. They speak the same language: Farsi. The fact that she has to wear a headscarf when she goes out in Afghanistan, unlike in Tajikistan, doesn't bother her. But she won't wear a burka, and that means she stands out in the street.
The fact that she works is also something unusual in Kunduz. "My husband doesn't mind," she says. She's clearly an exception. But like the Tajiks in Ishkashim who visit the cross-border bazaar, she also believes that Afghanistan has more influence on Tajik development than the other way round.
© Qantara.de 2009
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton