Tajikistan Slowly Collapses. Or Not.

by Joshua Foust on 3/17/2009 · 1 comment

Ilan Greenberg has an interesting article in Slate about Tajikistan’s looming collapse:

Many returnees told me they intend to go back to Russia—they had no alternative—but several already had disturbing stories. Among the dozen or so men in Vosay, half said they had been ripped off by their bosses in Russia. They received only a fraction of the money owed to them. One man said relatives had to send money for his train ticket home. Others said they had borrowed money from other Tajiks in Russia. “I would prefer to deal with the skinheads in Russia if I can make money,” said a 30-year-old migrant squatting against a piece of junk sheet metal. “What can I do in Tajikistan?”

There is no doubt that Tajikistan is being stressed by recent events. Maciej Falkowski, a researcher at the Polish Center for Eastern Studies, recently discussed just how bad it’s gotten:

Tajikistan’s social and economic problems worsened dramatically in the second half of 2008 as a consequence of the global economic crisis, the serious problems experienced by the Russian economy and the deep energy crisis. According to most recent figures, Tajikistan’s GDP decreased by 50.9% in January 2009 (on a month-to-month basis), and industrial production dropped by 18% on a month-to-month basis. The crisis has hit Tajikistan’s main source of export revenue, the aluminium sector, which accounts for around 75% of revenues from export2. Aluminium production decreased by 12% in January 2009 compared to December 2008 (having declined by 5% in the course of 2008), and further slumps are expected.

The value of the Tajik currency, the somoni, is also declining rapidly, and the country’s currency reserves are evaporating; they fell by more than 40% to US$198 million in December alone.

The situation is certainly worth concern. However, while the “canary in the coal mine” style of analysis is a good counterpoint to the neglect the country normally receives, it’s probably pushing things too far to say that we need to start thinking about total collapse.

Both reports, for example, discuss the recent ICG report on Tajikistan, which was up-front in its belief that Tajikistan is on the verge of collapse. In an excellent post at his other blog, Christian quibbles:

While I do have reservations with the recommendations offered by the ICG (i.e., the need for the international community to make a “public rebuke”), there is little that I strongly disagree with in the ICG’s description of the challenges facing Tajikistan. The economic, governance and social challenges are acknowledged by many…

This language is reminiscent of the language used in the title of an earlier ICG report: “Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan’s Failing Dictatorship” (2003). However, the dictatorship continued to “fail” and even smoothly transitioned after the death of Turkmenbashi to a new “failing dictatorship.” So, as you can see, there are obvious limitations to the warnings offered by observers of Central Asia. But there also are limitations to the criticisms of these analysts by others.

Peter Marton posted similar thoughts.

All this talk of failure, though, makes for a really interesting contrast with Joshua Kucera’s report on a new economic initiative:

A Pentagon-funded aid program to Tajikistan will aim to promote economic development in some of the most neglected parts of the country over the next three years, in an attempt to “prevent the rise of another Afghanistan.”

The program, called Tajikistan Stability Enhancement Program, will spend $7.1 million over the three-year span to help small communities work to identify development needs like road repairs, agricultural equipment or aid to small businesses, and then help to fund the projects.

The funds for the program will come from the US Department of Defense, under a program initiated in 2006 to help development in areas vulnerable to instability. Projects in Somalia, Haiti, Colombia and Yemen have already been funded under the program. The Tajikistan initiative will be the first time that Pentagon stabilization funds have been used in Central Asia.

The US Agency for International Development, which will administer the Pentagon’s Tajikistan plan, says that such an initiative is needed to promote stability in a vulnerable and strategic region. “Developing social stability in Tajikistan, through jobs, schools, and healthcare, is the key to establishing stability and security in this critical region and preventing the rise of another Afghanistan,” the agency wrote in a document inviting contractors to apply for the program.

Hrm. Small wonder, then, that Tajikistan is making noises like it will host the next U.S. Air Base in the region. Maybe the two are connected; but then again, maybe they are not. It is interesting, though, that this development program closely mirrors similar programs just over the border in Afghanistan: attempting to foment a community-driven development model, rather than just tossing handfuls of cash out of a helicopter.

Anyway, the point here is that, while we certainly need to keep a close eye on Tajikistan—especially if we are interested in keeping the northern border of Afghanistan relatively stable—it probably is not worth the sky-is-falling treatment it’s getting.

But that doesn’t make such treatment inappropriate, wrong, or even worth criticizing. The spectrum of analysis here is actually quite healthy, and usually better policy results from a choice of perspectives on a topic.

Registan.net’s previous discussions on Tajikistan’s many issues.
Our friend Vadim’s excellent reporting from Tajikistan.
Beyond the River’s coverage of Tajikistan.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Ekspeditsya March 17, 2009 at 11:03 am

Tajikistan Stability Enhancement Program is a pretty ridiculously grand sounding title for something with a three-year budget of $7.1 million. Even in Tajikistan that won’t buy much, and the sum is risible compared to the kinds of money that the World Bank shells out there on just the kinds of things envisaged by this vanity project.
The debate about whether Tajikistan is on the verge of collapse or not is pretty academic. It is essentially already collapsed in all practical respects; no public service operates anywhere near satisfactory levels, while anyone with two brain cells to rub together has either left the country or managed to wangle a job with a Western NGO, company or diplomatic section.
I suppose that if by collapse we take it to mean descent into rioting, looting, and civil war, perhaps the answer is that there is no strong incentive for any of these options.
Also, it is not necessarily wise to read too much into the short-term economic analysis approach adopted by Falkowski (links don’t work, by the way) since production always drops in the Dec-Jan period due to the fact that they can’t generate enough electricity.
The issue of power is bad enough as it is, but a recent article appearing on Ferghana.ru really told the story about what is so tragically stupid in the government’s handling of the problem.
An enterprising local businessman in the Sughd region, the worst-affected region for electricity shortages, decided to build his own mini-hydropower plant, which he used to supply his shopping mall and to sell power to residential customers in the town.
But as a local “expert” Hayrullo Mirsaidova told Ferghana.ru:

“In Sughd, lot of people are willing to build a similar mini-hydropower plants, but local authorities do not always encourage the initiative of ordinary citizens. There have been cases where tax officials have forced the owners of such mini-hydropower plants to destroy these important facilities. Moreover, such initiatives are not to the liking of representatives from the Barki Tojik state energy holding company, which currently has the monopoly on production and sale of electricity: it does not need the competition.”

See here for the entire article (in Russian) plus cool picture: http://www.ferghana.ru/news.php?id=11487&mode=snews

The last time I looked, Sughd region was one of the last regions in Tajikistan under the power-rationing regime that has been the bane of so many people’s life over the winter months.
If this isn’t a country that has not collapsed to all intents and purposes, then I don’t what is.

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