Of all the former Soviet republics, none has fallen further than Tajikistan – a small, mountainous state lodged in the heart of Central Asia. This nation of 5.9 million is still suffering from a four-year-old civil war that has claimed up to 50,000 lives and forced another half million into exile. The secessionist struggle in Chechnya may have garnered more headlines, but the Tajik body-count rivals, if not exceeds, the Chechen figure.
Always the poorest republic, Tajikistan delivered less than one per cent of the USSR’s GNP in the final year of its existence. Since gaining independence in 1991, however, it has been caught in a limbo – between Communism and Islam, reform and repression. The neo-Communist regime of President Imomali Rakhmonov may control the capitol of Dushanbe, but much of the country remains out of control, and the workforce that once harvested the vast cotton fields has been reduced to hunting and gathering.
Routinely characterized as ‘ethnic’, the war followed the country’s traditional regional fault lines, pitting powerful and weak groups created by Moscow during Soviet rule against each other. Broadly this meant the developed north fought the poor south and valley regions.
The war saw atrocities on both sides, but its lasting legacy lies in the south, where the mud-brick kishloqi, the villages scattered across the cotton lands, became killing fields. The conflict destroyed a vast swathe of the south, as the victorious Popular Front burned village after village of Gharmis and Pamiris. Cleansed of undesirables, today many of these kishloqi have been bulldozed beyond recognition.
Now the bloodletting is localized. Except for periodic assassinations in Dushanbe, the conflict is centered around the remote town of Tavildara at the edge of the Pamir mountains. The regime is hanging on, but only in the shadow of Russian tanks. Russia is here – with 25,000 troops – to secure a sphere of influence in its so-called ‘near abroad’.
The Rakhmonov Government has also earned a reputation as the most repressive in the former USSR. Most dissenters have been silenced by prison-terms, exile or assassination. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists rated Tajikistan the most dangerous place in the world for journalists – 41 have been killed since 1991.
‘The Russians are quite happy with this low-intensity conflict,’ says one of the 44 UN military observers here. ‘Keeping things on a low boil doesn’t cost them much, and it justifies their presence.’
But the boil may be rising. Last year, the UN reports, the country set a world record for diphtheria epidemics, with 4,455 cases recorded. Only after 333 people had died did the regime mobilize health workers to halt the disease’s spread. The World Bank has been visiting since 1993 but has yet to loan a dollar, while the average Tajik earns about six dollars a month. Dushanbe has scant heating or hot water. In the villages, there are few of the amenities of civilization.
Tajikistan can claim the semblances of sovereignty. There is a new currency – the Tajik ‘rubl’ instead of the Russian ‘rouble’ – and a new Constitution and Parliament. It is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the UN, the IMF, the World Bank and even President Clinton’s $150-million Central Asian-American Enterprise Fund. But given the bloody birth of the regime, its dependency on Russia and its Central Asian neighbours, sovereignty has yielded little more than a soapbox for the triumphant Popular Front, and a treasure-chest for redistributing their war booty.
AT A GLANCE
LEADER: President Imomali Rakhmonov
ECONOMY: GNP per capita $470 (Russia $2,340, Switzerland $35,760).
PEOPLE: 5.9 million.
HEALTH: Infant mortality 63 per 1,000 live births (Canada 6 per 1,000).
CULTURE: Tajik 58%, Uzbek 23% Slav 10%. Unlike neighbouring countries, most people are of Persian rather than Turkic descent.
Sources: The Asia & Pacific Review 1996; The State of the World’s Children 1996; The World: A Third World Guide 1995/96; information supplied by the author.
Never previously profiled
There is precious little income in Tajikistan, and what there is lies in the hands of the anointed few.
Estimated at 98%. One of the few upsides of the Soviet legacy.
The Tajiks survived the Soviet nightmare on Moscows subsidies. Left to their own cotton fields and failing factories, the country could not last long.
Between the strong arm of the ruling regime and Moscows shadow, not much room for ordinary Tajiks to manoeuvre.
POSITION OF WOMEN
There are exceptions, of course, but the norm is still for women to have multiple children and work both in the home and in the fields.
Officially 70 years, but this estimate dates from before the war and will have fallen sharply since (Russia 68 years).
NI star rating
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996