In terms of statistics, unless they are the rosy government sort, Tajikistan often appears to be on the edge of an abyss. But somehow the poorest country to emerge from the Soviet Union chugs on.
So a grim World Bank report out this week probably does not indicate imminent collapse. But it is unnerving to see that almost every macroeconomic indicator suggests trouble ahead. And Tajikistan’s latest predicament coincides with a push from Moscow to join Russia’s new Eurasian Economic Union.
Tajikistan’s economic dependence on Russia is, as economists have long warned, a liability—and not only because it gives Moscow enormous influence. “The possible spillover effect from the Russian slowdown onto the Tajikistan economy is estimated to be one of the largest in the [Europe and Central Asia] region: a 1 percentage point reduction in the growth of Russia’s GDP would reduce growth in Tajikistan by the same amount,” says the October 27 report, “Tajikistan: Moderated Growth, Heightened Risk.”
For starters, over a million Tajiks, or about one-half of working-age Tajik men, labor in Russia, usually in menial jobs. Their transfers are worth about half of Tajikistan’s GNP, making it the most remittance-dependent country in the world.
But as the Kremlin sacrifices Russia’s economy for its Ukraine policy, which has caused a new low in relations with the West, the resulting downturn is hurting the ruble and Tajikistan’s economy at large. An ailing ruble buys fewer dollars to send home.
France has formally ended its military presence in Tajikistan after 13 years of operations supporting French troops in Afghanistan.
At a ceremony October 28, the French flag was lowered at the Dushanbe airport, where since 2001 the French military had operated since 2001. The small base (actually a part of the Dushanbe's civilian international airport) hosted around 200 French troops at a time, working on supply and logistics for their compatriots in Afghanistan. From 2005 to 2007 it also hosted French fighter jets used for operations in Afghanistan. Over its lifespan it facilitated the transit of about 89,000 soldiers and carried out 11,000 airlift missions, according to the French Ministry of Defense.
The withdrawl is of course connected with the completion of the international combat mission in Afghanistan, which formally ends at the end of this year. As of October 6, France only had 90 soldiers remaining in Afghanistan, down from 4,000 in 2009.
The large majority of French troops actually left last year, and what was left was just a small skeleton crew working on resurfacing the runways, which was part of the deal by which the Tajikistan government agreed to allow the French presence.
The commander of Russia's Central Military District, Colonel-General Vladimir Zarudnitskiy, meets with Tajikistan Defense Minister Mirzo Sherali and other Tajikistan military officials. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia will build a new military training facility in southern Tajikistan to help the two countries carry out drills together, a Russian military official has said.
Few details were given about the new facility other than the name, which certainly makes a statement: "Armageddon."
"Russian soldiers will help their Tajikistani colleagues in setting up a new polygon, Armageddon, in the Khatlon province for joint training of military units of the two countries," said a spokesman for Russia's Central Military District, Yaroslav Roshchupkin.
The announcement was made during exercises of the Russian forces at the 201st Military Base in Tajikistan, the largest Russian base outside the country.
Roshchupkin made another curious statement talking to the press in Tajikistan. Describing classes that Russian soldiers are going to take to learn some basic Tajik language, the spokesman said that the lessons "are intended to form and strengthen the image of 'polite people' among soldiers of the Central Military District."
Improving relations between Russian troops and their Tajik hosts is no doubt more of a priority after two soldiers were accused of murdering a Tajikistani taxi driver in August.
But the phrasing is what's most notable: "Polite people" is a phrase that has become ubiquitous in Russian this year, referring to the mysterious, armed -- but polite -- men who popped up in Crimea ahead of Russia's annexation of the formerly Ukrainian territory. So raising the prospect of "polite people" appearing in Central Asia, even if made as a joke, may not be particularly funny to the nervous governments and people there.
A band of treacherous radicals will swoop into Tajikistan’s capital and seize power tomorrow at 3 p.m.—at least that’s what senior government officials seem to fear. To thwart their nefarious plans, prosecutors are visiting schools, telling children to avoid provocations; someone in government has shut down a bunch of Internet sites; and with a straight face the nation’s highest court has branded the hazy, little-known Facebook group terrorists.
Last weekend, Group 24, as the proto-opposition movement is known, called on Facebook for supporters to gather in one of Dushanbe’s main squares on October 10 and demand free elections and an end to the rule of long-serving strongman Emomali Rakhmon. Within hours, dozens or possibly hundreds of websites including Facebook and YouTube became inaccessible. Authorities would not say why. Instead, riot police closed off a large patch of Dushanbe, the capital, and, in a rare show of police strength, dispersed a mob – actors they’d brought in for the occasion, as it later turned out.
On October 8, the Interior Ministry deployed armored personnel carriers at entrances to the city. Ministry officials say the troop movements – which are anything but routine – are related to the president’s trip to a CIS Summit in Belarus.
Tajikistan has coupled one of its habitual Internet blocking sprees with an alarming show of police strength in central Dushanbe. The two cautious moves together appear designed to persuade a cowed population that heeding online calls for revolution is a bad idea.
Losing access to several websites simultaneously – typically social media and news sites – has become a regular fact of life for Internet users in Tajikistan. The latest filtering, which the government has denied imposing and Internet Service Providers have refused to admit on record, is unusual only in that Amazon.com, rarely cited as an agent of revolution, has been included on the blacklist. Northern Sughd Oblast, home to Tajikistan’s second-largest city, Khujand, has been almost completely offline since October 4.
Truth is no longer something expected from the government’s hated telecoms regulator, which consistently denies it blocks websites. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have a strong incentive to follow suit by attributing the bans to “technical problems,” or face the possibility of losing their licenses. But one provider speaking anonymously to Russian news agency Interfax was reported as saying October 6: "We have received an order from the communications service [to block] a list of websites: Facebook, vk.com, lenta.ru, youtube.com, mk.ru, amazon.com, ru.wikipedia.org and dozens of web anonymizers that allow bypassing these blockings."
Economist Farrukh Akhmedov pointed out that a lot has changed for Russia since last year, now embroiled in a war with Ukraine and a confrontation with NATO, and so is in no position to deliver the aid it promised.
"Therefore I don't see any prospect now for the military aid for Tajikistan... It's possible that in time Russia will carry out all its obligations in the plan for economic and military aid, but with the changes in the political arena it's very hard to judge."
The head of the opposition Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Rahmatullo Zoyirov, said that "the agreement only favors Russia, not Tajkistan. Of the announced military aid, only a tenth has been carried out." (It should be noted that the aid was scheduled to be disbursed over a period ending in 2025, so if in fact a tenth has been delivered, that may be ahead of schedule.)
Tajikistan’s state-appointed chief mufti has warned that cooperating with journalists or others who intend to “destabilize” the country, or criticizing the authoritarian government to such people, constitutes a “grave sin,” local media report.
The fatwa, according to AFP, includes any “criticism of the ruling powers.” "Criticism undermines trust in the authorities," warned Mufti Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda at Friday prayers in Dushanbe.
Abdulkodirzoda did not specify how Muslims are to identify the potentially perfidious reporters, or if they should avoid speaking with the media altogether, but journalists such as prominent editor Marat Mamadshoev said the fatwa is just the latest attack on their rights in the officially secular country.
Lawyer and opposition activist Rahmatillo Zoirov told Radio Ozodi that the fatwa would undermine laws on the freedom of the press (which officials often ignore) and that the clergy “has no right to interfere in the affairs of state.”
Moderate Muslims, including the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, have also denounced the injunction, according to AFP.
It is not unusual, of course, for a leader to use his people's faith to enforce fealty. In Russia, where Tajik leaders look for inspiration, the Orthodox Church has become the moral mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin’s reign.
Two Russian soldiers accused of killing a taxi driver in Tajikistan have been sent to Moscow for psychological testing. And while the commander of the Russian military base has personally apologized to the family of the victim, his relatives are concerned that the suspects' return to Russia may mean they won't face justice in Tajikistan.
Rahimjon Teshaboev, a 36-year-old taxi driver, was killed in August; his body was discovered near a lake with his throat slashed. Police arrested two suspects, both soldiers at the Russian military base, Fyodor Basimov and Ildar Sakhapov.
An unnamed source told the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that: "They committed the crime according to a prearranged plan after ... Basimov became indebted to Teshaboev, owing him 50,000 rubles [about $1,300], but couldn't repay the money. Consulting with his comrade Ildar, they tried to 'solve the problem' August 16. But the first time they didn't succeed, and on August 18 they offered Teshaboev 'to go fishing.' Next to a lake at the village of Chimtep, Fyodor held the driver while Ildar cut his throat."
(It's perhaps worth noting that this story seems to have not been heavily covered in either the Russian or Tajikistan press, but that BBC Russian and RFE/RL have been leading the coverage.)
From the EBRD report: “The chart shows that Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan (the latter predominantly through remittance flows) have the highest overall economic exposure to Russia. Such exposures are also significant for the Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova and Ukraine.”
As Russia’s economy goes, Central Asia’s follows. So it is no surprise that the current downward drift in Russia will hurt the region, potentially for years to come. Remittance-dependent countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should be especially worried, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a multilateral lender, says in a new report.
In its September regional assessment, the EBRD forecasts growth in Russia will come to a “standstill” in the coming months. Already pronounced, Russia’s economic slump is being exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions. The EBRD said Central Asia, and formerly communist countries more broadly, can expect “significant spill-over effects.”
New sanctions by the EU and U.S., which will dampen growth in Russia, “will negatively affect growth in the Central Asian countries.”
As in 2009, during the financial crisis, migrants and their dependents back home will be the first to feel the pain. Remittances from Russia to Central Asia fell in the first quarter of 2014 compared with the previous year, “for the first time since 2009, primarily due to the slowdown in Russia,” the EBRD said. “Particularly vulnerable are [the] Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, where even a small drop in remittances from Russia is substantive, as remittances make up 29 percent and 49 percent of GDP respectively.”
A fall in remittances “may significantly dampen consumer demand in lower-income countries in the region.”
Dushanbe and Beijing have launched construction of a key gas pipeline that will turn Tajikistan into a transit country for Central Asian gas supplies to neighboring China, the world’s largest energy consumer.
The pipeline will lock Tajikistan into an energy partnership with its powerful neighbor from which the former Soviet Union’s poorest country will reap millions of dollars every year in transit fees.
The project has “immense political, economic, and historical significance,” Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon said at the groundbreaking ceremony on September 13. His visiting Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, described the pipeline as a “symbol of China-Tajikistan friendship.”
The link will supplement the existing Central Asia pipeline running from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The new section bypassing Kazakhstan and passing through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, known as Line D, will increase the pipeline’s overall annual capacity by 30 billion cubic meters, to around 85 billion. Like the other lines, it will also pass through Uzbekistan.
Tajikistan will host the longest section of the new 1,000-kilometer spur, with 400 kilometers passing through its territory. China will pick up the $3.2 billion price tag for that leg.
Beijing is already ramping up gas supplies through the existing Central Asia pipelines. A third line known as Line C started pumping from Turkmenistan in May, almost doubling the pipeline’s overall annual capacity to 55 billion cubic meters.