International attention may be focused currently on Kyrgyzstan, where the drama over the American air base is playing out, but the spotlight in Central Asia really deserves to shine on Tajikistan, according to a report prepared by the International Crisis Group. Tajikistan is a potential disaster waiting to happen, the report contends.
The litany of Tajikistan's recent woes is indeed a long one, including financial shenanigans by government officials, chronic shortages of heating and electricity, a calamitous cotton harvest and a dramatic drop in remittances sent home by migrant workers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The combination of misfortune and malfeasance may prove too powerful for President Imomali Rahmon's administration to manage.
"Far from being a bulwark against the spread of extremism and violence from Afghanistan, Tajikistan is looking increasingly like its southern neighbor -- a weak state that is suffering from a failure of leadership," says the report. "Energy infrastructure is near total breakdown for the second winter running, and it is likely [that] migrant laborer remittances, the driver of the country's economy in recent years, will fall dramatically as a result of the world economic crisis."
Protests are possible, the ICG report indicates. The trauma inflicted on society by the 1992-97 civil war in Tajikistan gave rise to the impression that citizens lack the stomach for political protest and confrontation. But the social and economic problems are sufficiently severe today that previous assumptions about Tajiks' passivity may be outdated, the report suggests.
"The war is rapidly ceasing to be a living memory. The median age is 21; around 35 percent of the population is under 14," according to the report, which was released February 12.
"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," the report continues. It added that as the population grapples with privation, the government has continued to devote resources to reinforcing the security apparatus while short-changing basic state services. Several key sectors, "particularly social welfare, health and education, are ignored and under-funded," the report states.
Beyond the potential outbreak of protests, another possibility is that the government's inability to address hardships could invite challenges to Rahmon's authority from within the system. "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," the report says. "There is ample proof the president is still able to outmaneuver his opponents. But he is at best only treading water."
Meanwhile, international financiers and foreign diplomats express concern about the Tajik government's ability to turn things around. Some interviewed by ICG said they were astounded by the incompetence and suspicion they encountered in their dealings with Dushanbe. "We are not just dealing with selfishness and greed, but incredible incompetence at all levels," one diplomat told ICG. "There is no capacity to govern."
Despite doubts about the Tajik government's capacity, the ICG report calls on the international community to pressure Dushanbe to accelerate democratization measures. Instead of continuing to prop up Rahmon's government with foreign aid that is squandered amid corruption, the report recommends that the international community send aid to local agencies and authorities that "are more accountable" and that have a greater potential to deliver results. The ICG also urges political reforms that encourage civil society development.
The foreign aid conundrum was underscored on February 18, when the International Monetary Fund announced a fresh $120 million loan for Tajikistan to support poverty-reduction measures.
The ICG report additionally offers a realistic assessment about whether its recommendations would be heeded. "Few senior officials in Western capitals know where Tajikistan is, and will only become interested in the country if it becomes another of the obscure states that forces its way onto the world's consciousness by becoming the epicenter of a major crisis," the report states.
"There may be no revolt. The regime may just quietly crumble and collapse," the report adds. "The stakes are, however, too high to do nothing."