It has long been clear that Tajikistan’s economy depends on cash remittances from labor migrants. In mid-November, the World Bank said remittances amounted to the equivalent of 47 percent of the country’s GDP, making Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world.
For years, observers have argued that migration – and the poverty driving it – is a threat to Tajikistan’s stability. But in an intriguing essay earlier this month for Radio Ozodi, Tajik political scientist Navruz Nekbakhtshoev argued that the exodus of labor migrants actually helps stabilize Tajikistan and enables President Imomali Rahmon to maintain his grip on power. Labor migrants – who comprise perhaps one out of every seven Tajiks – provide the cash that keeps the country afloat. But they are not home (most work in Russia) to protest the corruption, nepotism, or entrenched poverty. So the government, Nekbakhtshoev argues, effectively rids itself of an active population that might otherwise be malcontents at home. [To read the original essay, as posted by @eTajikstan in English, click here].
Nekbakhtshoev, a PhD candidate at Indiana University’s Political Science Department, agreed to answer a few questions by email. The interview has been edited for length.
EurasiaNet: Why are young people leaving Tajikistan in droves?
Navruz Nekbakhtshoev: When you talk to people in Tajikistan about this, especially government officials, they mention the migration of Mexicans to the United States or of Turks to Germany to suggest that migration is a normal process. It is true that Mexico receives billions of dollars in remittances, but labor migrants’ remittance as a share of Mexico’s GDP, according to a 2011 World Bank report, is only 3 percent. Statistics aside, it is remarkable that migrating to Russia has become a matter of course for young [Tajik] people when they graduate from high school. The reason people migrate to Russia has to do with a lack of well-paid employment prospects at home.
Rural areas of Tajikistan are the chief benefactors of labor migration. Despite government pronouncements of Tajikistan as an agrarian country and its pledge to implement land reform policies sponsored by the World Bank and USAID, an average Tajikistani, due to a lack of secure property rights, limited access to credit, markets, and other agricultural inputs has not been able to benefit from land. Rural migration is thus a corollary of failed agrarian polices.
EurasiaNet: What is this migration doing to Tajikistan’s economy?
NN: Outmigration is a precarious solution for stabilizing the economy. The recent global economic crisis had a negative impact on the local economy when the flow of remittances from Russia temporarily slowed down.
EurasiaNet: You have argued that migration actually helps stabilize Rakhmon’s hold on power. How?
NN: Tajikistanis migrate in order to alleviate the pressures of unemployment and high levels of inequality caused by the mismanaged economy. For politicians, labor migration is a blessing because it brings remittances. By sending remittances, labor migrants replace the government as a chief guarantor of household security and help sustain the economic and political status quo. For its part, the government does everything (mainly through incompetent economic policies) to facilitate labor migration.
It is true that the majority of labor migrants choose to leave the country for economic reasons and are unconcerned about politics. Even so, outmigration sustains the political status quo. Migration weakens the tie citizens have to their home country, as they only come back for a short term and thus are less likely to become vocal. With [so many people] permanently out of the country, the government does not need to improve its performance because it is aware that, from the labor migrants’ perspective, migrating is less costly than voicing criticism. [Also,] the mobility is bad for opposition parties’ mobilization efforts.
As long as outmigration remains an option for Tajikistanis, the brutal political and economic status quo will be sustained. Of course things can change if opposition parties became more active and find innovative solutions to change the status quo through constitutional means. In a nutshell, the government survives largely because of the outmigration, which is considered by Western policy analysts to be a defining feature of all that is wrong with Tajikistan’s economy and which potentially imperils its stability. … The government of Tajikistan will enjoy a safe ride into the future as long as the possibility of exiting the country is available for the average Tajikistani.
EurasiaNet: Migration also makes the Rahmon administration dependent on Moscow, as most of the labor migrants go to Russia. If the Kremlin were to close the door, Rahmon would have a problem. Could Moscow use the remittances as leverage in its relations with Tajikistan, which aren't always the smoothest?
NN: It could and has already done so. Last November, the Russians deported a few Tajik migrants to get Dushanbe to release a Russian pilot who was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison for illegally crossing the border from Afghanistan.
Despite lacking any bargaining chips in its relations with Russia, the government of Tajikistan sometimes does [challenge] Russia. Recently, for example, the government of Tajikistan demanded payment in exchange for Russian troops stationed in Tajikistan, though Rahmon’s negotiations with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin did not result in any substantial concession from Russia.
From Dushanbe’s foreign policy behavior toward Russia one can infer that either the government of Tajikistan is clueless about how dependent the country is on remittances, or the government of Tajikistan is desperate for cash, or such a “tough” stance is merely a ploy designed to shore up the leadership’s legitimacy at home, especially with the next presidential election around the corner [currently scheduled for fall 2013 – editor]. I tend to lean towards the latter conclusion, namely that Dushanbe knows that with over a million Tajik migrants in Russia, a seemingly intransigent political stance can generate political dividends by showing it has the country’s interests at heart, even in negotiating with such a great power as Russia.
EurasiaNet: Inequality in Tajikistan appears extreme. While most people are obviously impoverished, a minority (who often seem to be senior government officials and their families) live exceptionally well. Why don’t people protest?
NN: With the recent uprisings in the Arab world, the paucity of protests in Central Asia is striking. Corruption and authoritarianism – purported to be the reason for why people took to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria – are defining features of the countries in Central Asia. Government officials and Western observers alike downplayed the possibility of such an uprising in Tajikistan on the grounds that the memory of civil war is still fresh in the minds of Tajikistani citizens. This is a tenuous claim given that the younger generation has no memory of the civil war. Also, look at the case of Georgia, which experienced civil war and subsequent street protests: That should serve as a reminder to Tajik officials that trumpeting the memory of civil war is a defective vaccine for immunizing the political system from public protest.
In my view, Tajikistanis do not protest because protesting does not pay. For an average labor migrant, the opportunity cost of protesting is making enough money abroad (in Russia) to support a household. Protesting does not offer any material benefit in the near, or maybe distant future, but exiting the country in search of a better paying job in Russia does. Once we empathize with the situation of an average labor migrant, that is, once we assume that an average labor migrant is capable of such cost-benefit calculation, which I believe he is, then it becomes understandable why protests hardly happen in the country.