Can Tajikistan weather the storm?

KHOJAND, Tajikistan — The spreading global financial crisis has raised the specter of widespread upheaval in this small but strategically important mountainous former Soviet nation straddling Afghanistan's jagged northern border.

“The crisis is the start of a catastrophe,” said Saifullo Ergashev, executive director of the Human Rights Center here. Tajikistan was devastated by food and energy shortages last year due to unusually cold winter conditions, and experienced severe energy and water shortages again this winter.

A report released in February by the International Crisis Group painted a grim picture.

Tajikistan's energy infrastructure is in “near total breakdown for the second winter running,” the report said, “and it is likely migrant laborer remittances, the driver of the country’s economy in recent years, will fall dramatically as a result of the world economic crisis.” The report described 70 percent of the countryside as living in “abject poverty” and reported that “hunger is now spreading to the cities, particularly Khojand, once one of the most prosperous and politically influential parts of the country.”

“I would say nine out of ten men in my village is back from Russia and broke with no knowledge of how they will survive in the future,” said Aziz, a university student in Khojand who comes from a village near the border with Uzbekistan. He declined to give his full name for fear of government reprisal for speaking to a foreign reporter.

Half the country's gross domestic product is derived from the remittances of the more than 1 million Tajiks working abroad, mostly young men in Russia, according to International Monetary Fund statistics. Many of these workers are back — but they generally return every year in January and February, when construction projects and farms are idle. Many Tajiks say they still plan on returning to Russia, but given the global downturn jobs there are likely to be scant.

Already there are troubling signs. Many Tajiks have returned to Tajikistan without having been paid in Russia. Families say they have had to wire money to relatives in Russia — usually it is the other way around — and Tajiks say they feel much more vulnerable to anti-foreigner violence in Russia.

The financial crisis is already bleeding Tajikistan. The Tajik government reports crime this year is up 6.5 percent, while according to the IMF remittances are down 24 percent. The country's two biggest industries, cotton and aluminum, have tanked. Aluminum prices have fallen 67 percent.

Tajikistan is not well positioned to weather the storm. Endemic corruption and winters without electricity have discouraged investment in homegrown businesses. The streets of Khojand appear strangely prosperous: Traffic is choked with 10-year-old Mercedes sedans, pedestrians are smartly dressed, and many homes are freshly remodeled. But like everywhere in Tajikistan, residents say there are almost no actual jobs in the region; money came from Russia but has been spent on cars, new homes and the requirements of daily life.

The war in Afghanistan to date has largely overshadowed conditions in Tajikistan, but that may change soon, with Tajikistan expected to become a major overland route for non-lethal supplies for NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan. Both U.S. aid and dependence on the country as a bulwark against terrorism and narcotics trafficking look likely to increase.

“Nobody can say what will happen, but everybody can say whatever happens, it won't be good,” said Ergashev of the Human Rights Center.

(Ilan Greenberg and Carolyn Drake traveled to Tajikistan on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

For more on the global economic crisis:

Peasant revolution 2.0

Downturn halts Central Asia's economic boom

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