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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.

Nick Megoran

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