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.
Vaguely worded anti-gay legislation in Kyrgyzstan could send a reporter to jail for discussing homosexual rights, force LGBT-rights activists underground, and encourage violence against the community, activists say. Some fear it amounts to re-criminalizing homosexuality.
The ruble vs the tenge over the last 12 months. The sharp change in February indicates the first tenge devaluation. Since then, the ruble has continued to slide, again putting pressure on the tenge. xe.com.
As the price of oil falls, and as Russia’s Central Bank struggles to keep the ruble from hitting a new record low each day, Kazakhstan’s currency is facing pressure on two fronts. The major oil producer, whose economy is tightly linked to Russia’s, already sharply devalued the tenge once this year. But facing these new challenges, can the Kazakh National Bank hold its currency stable? And can Kazakhstan keep its books balanced?
Higher output and weaker global demand have pushed the price for benchmark Brent crude to $83 per barrel, its lowest in four years, down 27 percent since June. Oil, Kazakhstan’s chief export, is still above the government’s fiscal breakeven point of $65.5 per barrel, as calculated by the IMF. But it is below $90.6, where Kazakhstan faces a balance of payments deficit that puts further downward pressure on the currency. Moreover, trade with Russia is down 22 percent this year.
Kazakhstan’s “tenge weakened in forward markets last week, responding to a drop in the price of oil and sliding ruble,” Halyk Finance, an Almaty-based investment bank, said in an October 13 note. “The weakening of the Russian ruble and falling oil prices are the main fundamental reasons of the tenge weakening in forward markets.”
Russia is Kazakhstan’s main trading partner. And because of the falling price of oil, and the effect of sanctions the West has imposed on Moscow for meddling in Ukraine, the Russian currency has fallen nearly 20 percent this year. That has put the ruble-tenge exchange rate back where it was just before the tenge devaluation (see chart).
Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan have voted overwhelmingly to adopt a tougher version of Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law. The Kyrgyz version mandates jail terms for gay-rights activists and others, including journalists, who create “a positive attitude toward non-traditional sexual relations.”
The vaguely worded bill passed its first reading on October 15 with a vote of 79 to 7, AKIpress reported (the 120-seat legislature is rarely full). During a meeting last week to discuss the bill, one lawmaker said the draft is not tough enough and proposed to increase sentences from up to one year to three. If it passes two more readings, the bill will go to President Almazbek Atambayev – a staunch Russia ally – for his signature.
One of the bill’s authors, Kurmanbek Dyikanbayev, often sounds as if he is repeating Kremlin talking points. Dyikanbayev told Radio Azattyk last week that he sponsored the bill to protect Kyrgyzstan’s “traditional families.” He also blames Western democracy for moral degeneracy and for encouraging homosexuality.
Bishkek-based LGBT-rights organization Labrys, whose advocacy would be outlawed by the bill, notes that the legislation contradicts numerous human-rights provisions in Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. Nika Yuryeva of Labrys said she fears the bill will encourage more violence against the LGBT community.
An Ontario court has frozen much of Kyrgyzstan’s share in its largest industrial asset, the Kumtor Gold Mine, adding an awkward new twist to the epic saga over the mine’s future.
Kumtor is fully owned by Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which is one-third owned by Kyrgyzstan’s state-run Kyrgyzaltyn gold company. Since early 2012, Kyrgyzstan has been trying to increase its share in the high-altitude mine, which accounts for over 50 percent of the impoverished country’s industrial output and 10 percent of GDP in a good year. Early this year, the government and Centerra were moving toward an agreement that would increase Kyrgyzstan’s share in Kumtor to 50 percent, but negotiations have stalled as some lawmakers continue to demand the mine be nationalized.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruling favors another investor with no role in the Kumtor dispute: Stans Energy, which says Kyrgyzstan has failed to pay the $118 million in damages awarded in Moscow this summer related to a different mine site, Kutessay II. In July, the Arbitration Court at the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry ordered the Kyrgyz government to pay Stans in compensation for seizing the company’s license to Kutessay II, a heavy rare earths deposit.
Stans Energy announced on October 14 that the court order “prohibits the Kyrgyz Republic and Kyrgyzaltyn JSC ("KJSC") from selling, disposing, exchanging, assigning, transferring, pledging or encumbering 47,000,000 shares in the capital of Centerra Gold Inc. registered in the name of KJSC.”
Tears welled up in Alexey Melnikov’s eyes as a spaceship carrying three astronauts lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome several hours before dawn. The Russian-born, London-based computer programmer had wanted to see the breathtaking spectacle since he was a boy.
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’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.
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.”