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Can Tajikistan weather the storm?

Will the economic crisis lead to unrest in this nation, which is critical to military supply routes?

A street scene in Shurab, a coal mining town in northern Tajikistan whose population has been depleted in recent years due to lack of work. (Carolyn Drake/Pulitzer Center)

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.