jon spaull / Panos / www.panos.co.uk
In March 2006, a report about Tajikistan’s prospects occasioned a remarkable public row between the UK-based commercial risk analysis group, Oxford Analytica, and the US ambassador to the country, Dick Hoagland. Oxford Analytica wrote that Tajikistan was, ‘a failed state on the brink of civil war’, gravely threatened by poverty, insurgency, Islamic terrorism and drugs. Hoagland reacted angrily to the analysis, accusing it of ignoring Tajikistan’s ‘remarkable job [of] pulling itself up by its bootstraps’. Indeed, he said, the article was ‘so far from reality that if one of my staff had turned this in, I would have responded “What the hell have you been smoking?”’
This spat is symptomatic of how difficult it is to assess the fragile political progress of Tajikistan. Its brief history as an independent state is dominated by one event – the civil war of 1992-97 – and its aftermath.
Although Tajikistan is the heir to an ancient Persian and Turkic cultural legacy, the modern state dates back to 1929 and Stalin’s creation of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. The poorest part of the Soviet Union, it nonetheless enjoyed living standards that were the envy of the Third World. Educationally, it had almost as many PhDs per head of population as the US. Little wonder that electors overwhelmingly voted to remain in the Soviet Union in a 1991 referendum.
As the Soviet Union collapsed following the failed coup shortly afterwards, newly independent Tajikistan began a swift descent into a brutal civil war. Over 50,000 people died, and many more were displaced, in an immensely destructive five-year period.
As the fledgling state imploded, leaders of all stripes built the private militias that would plunge the country into crisis.
In late 1992 the Popular Front, a coalition of warlords, captured the capital, Dushanbe, in fighting that destroyed more than 55,000 homes and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe. This coalition brought Emomali Rahmonov to power, a reality confirmed in a 1994 presidential election. Opposition forces, however, regrouped in outlying regions and Afghanistan, and it was not until 1997 that peace accords and a power-sharing agreement brought the war to an end.
Since then, Rahmonov’s priority has been to establish his authority over the country. In a sometimes dangerous game of brinkmanship, he has co-opted or eliminated potential or actual rivals. Political opponents have been sidelined by the manipulation of the electoral process. Despite some isolated incidents of serious political violence, the general decline in warlordism is welcomed by most people.
The civil war had catastrophic impacts on the social and economic life of Tajikistan, and the subsequent preoccupation with regime security has distracted attention and resources from development. Hundreds of thousands of desperate Tajik men seek seasonal employment in Russia – it is estimated that half the country’s young men are working abroad during any one year. These migrants are vulnerable to exploitation and xenophobic attacks.
Tajikistan’s traumas, and the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Rahmonov, have taken their toll on the intellectual and spiritual life of the country, too. Few independent media exist. Religious minorities face increasing intolerance. In 2006 the country’s sole synagogue was partially demolished to make way for new urban developments, and an alarming number of Christian converts have been murdered. But it is radical and pious Muslims who have experienced the worst persecution, by a regime terrified that they might form the basis of a future political challenge.
A realistic assessment of Tajikistan’s progress lies somewhere between Oxford Analytica’s pessimism and Dick Hoagland’s optimism. People thank God for the end of the civil war, but their prayers for a return to the good life have yet to be answered.
|Leader||President Emomali Rahmonov|
|Economy||GNI per capita $330 (Afghanistan $250, Australia $32,220)|
|Main exports||aluminium, electricity, cotton, fruits, vegetable oil and textiles. In a partial recovery from the collapse and hyperinflation of the early 1990s, Tajikistan has achieved some impressive rates of formal economic growth, based largely on aluminium mining. But this foreign currency has tended to go into the pockets of the élite and exacerbated the striking gaps in wealth distribution|
|People||6.5 million. People per square kilometre 45 (UK 246)|
|Health||Infant mortality 59 per 1,000 live births (Afghanistan 165, Australia 5). HIV prevalence is officially just 0.1% but the rise in prostitution, combined with mass male temporary migration, has led to an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases and fears of an HIV/AIDS epidemic|
|Environment||Since 1960, the area of irrigated land has increased by 50 per cent but, as in other countries with monocropped cotton, soil salinity has also increased. Pesticides are overused in agriculture and industrial pollution affects the air and water|
|Culture||Tajik 64.9%, Uzbek 25.0%, Russian 3.5%, Tatar 1.4%, Kyrgyz 1.3%, Others 3.9%|
|Religion||There is no state religion but most are Sunni Muslims. There are small Christian (Russian Orthodox) and Jewish minorities|
|Language||Tajik (official), Uzbek, Russian|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||There are vast inequalities. Elites have prospered through corruption, the drugs trade, and cotton exports picked by forced labour. Meanwhile, much of the population remains in poverty, with access to neither decent wages nor social provision|
|Literacy||The Soviet Union bequeathed a legacy of near universal literacy, but education has since been degraded through poor resourcing and limited opportunities|
|Life expectancy||64 years (Afghanistan 47, Australia 81). Since the end of the civil war, the UN estimates that life expectancy has decreased by about four years|
|Freedom||Opportunity for the expression of political dissent and non-traditional religious practice is increasingly limited|
|Position of women||With a relative decline in female participation in education, and increased vulnerability to prostitution and trafficking, particularly to wealthy Arab states, independence has been dismal for women in general|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality is illegal for men; lesbianism is not mentioned in law. No data on transgender|
|New Internationalist assessment||The peace accords that ended the 1992-97 civil war, while not perfect, were nonetheless an admirable example of compromise and political will. Emomali Rahmonov has subsequently departed from their spirit by asserting his own hold on power. He has thereby successfully suppressed the warlordism that tore his country apart, but done little to lay the foundations of a genuine multiparty democracy.|