Tajikistan: On the Road to Failure
Tajikistan: On the Road to Failure
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Tajikistan: On the Road to Failure

Far from being a bulwark against the spread of extremism and violence from Afghanistan, Tajikistan is looking increasingly like its southern neighbour – a weak state that is suffering from a failure of leadership.

Executive Summary

Far from being a bulwark against the spread of extremism and violence from Afghanistan, Tajikistan is looking increasingly like its southern neighbour – a weak state that is suffering from a failure of leadership. Energy infrastructure is near total breakdown for the second winter running, and it is likely migrant labourer remittances, the driver of the country’s economy in recent years, will fall dramatically as a result of the world economic crisis. President Emomali Rakhmon may be facing his greatest challenge since the civil war of 1992-97. At the very least the government will be confronted with serious economic problems, and the desperately poor population will be condemned to yet more deprivation. At worst the government runs the risk of social unrest. There are few indications that the Rakhmon administration is up to this challenge. To address the situation, the international community – both at the level of international organisations and governments – should ensure any assistance reaches those who truly need it, place issues of governance and corruption at the centre of all contacts with the Tajik government, and initiate an energetic dialogue with President Rakhmon on democratisation.

Since the civil war, government advisers and international donors have repeatedly called for sweeping reforms to address food security, diversify the economy, dismantle opaquely run state monopolies and stop the looting of state coffers. Nothing has happened. Significant improvement is highly unlikely under President Rakhmon’s leadership, and may well take a generation. Whether Tajikistan can last that long is an open question. Donors need to address corruption in a coherent and unified way if they want to avoid seeing the country slip back into failure. A new framework for aid, based on strict conditionality, is urgently needed.

The government pays little, if any, attention to these problems. Ministries and state bodies that are of direct political or financial interest to the top leaders and their allies function well, notably the security bloc, along with the highly profitable state-owned aluminium smelter and several other state firms. Other sectors, particularly social welfare, health and education, are ignored and underfunded. 

Some 70 per cent of the population lives in abject poverty in the countryside, and hunger is now spreading to the cities, particularly Khujand, once one of the most prosperous and politically influential parts of the country. In the past few years increasing numbers of young Tajiks have left the country to work as seasonal labourers, primarily in Russia and Kazakhstan. In 2008 the number reached a new record, in all likelihood over one million, or at least half of the country’s labour force. Their remittances exceeded $2 billion, almost half of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The annual departure of Tajikistan’s most dynamic and enterprising citizens has up to now provided Rakhmon with an economic lifeline, not to mention a political safety valve by removing those most likely to oppose the regime. With the onset of the world economic crisis, however, labour migration is likely to diminish sharply in 2009, and along with it the remittances that are so vital to the country’s economic stability.

Opposition parties have been sidelined or co-opted; potential rivals have been imprisoned or exiled. President Rakhmon, one of the civil war’s main actors, projects himself as the guarantor of peace, and even some critics view him as indispensable. Accepted wisdom holds the population is too traumatised by the memory of a horrendous civil war to risk further unrest. Society is changing, however.

The war is rapidly ceasing to be a living memory. The median age is 21; around 35 per cent of the population is under fourteen. A striking demonstration of state impotence in the winter of 2007-8, when the government was unable to provide even the minimum of services to its citizens, shook confidence and may have triggered a further wave of emigration, this time by the middle class. Sweeping power cuts in early 2009 which left much of the country again with little or no electricity and confirmed the degradation of its energy infrastructure will probably deepen disillusionment.

Although there are no indications of either an external threat or any well-organised local insurgency, there are signs of cracks and fissures in the regime. In 2008, a series of gunfights and violent altercations along with demonstrations, a rarity in Tajikistan, in the autonomous mountain region of Badakhshan provoked questions about the president’s hold on power. There is ample proof the president is still able to outmanoeuvre his opponents. But he is at best only treading water.

Since the civil war Rakhmon has pursued an open door foreign policy, establishing better ties with China, Iran and Europe, as well as Russia. He would undoubtedly be happy to have his country be part of the Central Asia transport line that the U.S. military is creating to resupply its growing military presence in Afghanistan. This would probably bring more of the international funding that is already crucial to his regime’s survival. But the fragility of his country’s transport and energy infrastructure raises questions about Tajikistan’s ability to play a role in this planned logistical supply line.

Substantial amounts of money are presently being provided from donors – international institutions, the U.S., EU, Switzerland and Britain among others. Yet most of this is believed to be lost to corruption before it gets anywhere near its intended recipients. A scandal at the National Bank of Tajikistan, where it was revealed in late 2007 that the authorities had failed to disclose that $310 million in reserves were used to guarantee a private financial institution financing cotton investors, mostly destroyed the Rakhmon administration’s remaining credibility with donors. An external audit into the National Bank and two other major state enterprises may well deepen the president’s embarrassment. Donor countries are aware of the problems, frustrated – in some cases outraged – but are in a quandary.

Rakhmon is not performing his expected role, the creation of a modern, functioning state that could be a firewall against the spread of extremism from Afghanistan and other parts of South Asia. But with crude but effective processes of co-option or punishment, he has emptied the political space, leaving neither domestic nor international critics with a viable alternative.

Dushanbe/Brussels, 12 February 2009

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