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Tajikistan, A Frail Nation-State Amidst the New Great Game

The past two decades since the 1991 collapse of Communism have seen the Russian Federation and the U.S. involved in an updated version of the 19th century’s “Great Game’ for mastery in Eurasia over the debris field of the former USSR.

Not surprisingly, Moscow regards its former colonial fiefdoms as part of its “near abroad,” a “Monroeskii Doktrin” variant of U.S. interest in Central and Latin American, where a priori interests rule.

U.S. interests in the post-Soviet Eurasian space since 1991 have fixated first on the region’s immense but underdeveloped energy resources, while the post-9/11 environment added a second dimension – military bases, handily useful for monitoring both the Russian bear and a rising China.

Washington’s confrontation with Moscow over regional dominance is increasingly coming to resemble the memorable scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (oddly enough, set in the same area), where Marion Ravenwood is involved in a boozy contest to drink her opponent under the table.

The last piece of gristle left on the gaming banquet table is Tajikistan, the poorest, then and now, of the former Soviet republics, but one in which now both the Russian Federation and the U.S. discern ‘strategic” interests.

What is tragic in this game of shadow boxing is how little is ‘trickling down” to the average Tajik, whose life is one of grinding poverty and diminished expectations. Tajikistan faces a daunting litany of problems – quite aside from the aforementioned poverty, the population’s misery index includes substantial portions of drug trafficking, persistent Islamic militancy and corruption. The 2010 Global Corruption Barometer, a recent report by Transparency International, ranked Tajikistan one of the world's worst nation’s in terms of corruption, placing it at 154th out of 178 surveyed.

As for drugs, Tajikistan's porous 810 mile-long border with Afghanistan is essentially wide open, a porous frontier which separates one of the world's most unstable countries from one of the poorest.

Washington has belatedly recognized Tajikistan's importance in its efforts to pacify Afghanistan. Last year the U.S. provided Tajikistan with a munificent $65.48 million in foreign aid. Washington's twin concerns for Tajikistan are the drug trade and Islamic militancy, and there is little indication that either is being successfully contained. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates than in 2010 Afghanistan produced about 3,600 tons of opium, much of which transits Tajikistan on its way to European and American markets. In 2009, Tajik security services seized a paltry 4.5 tons of drugs. Any bets as to how much else slipped through?

As for Russia, it never really left. Last week Sergei Naryshkin, head of the administration of Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev, accompanied by Russian Defense Minister Anatoli Serdyukov  visited Tajikistan, and met with high-ranking Tajik officials. One immediate outcome of their discussions was Moscow’s decision to reduce customs duties for oil products exported to Tajikistan, no small matter for Dushanbe, which imports approximately 90 percent of its hydrocarbons from Russia.

As for Tajikistan's Islamic militants, they are a legacy of the country's brutal civil war. Of all the former Soviet “stans,” Tajikistan suffered the most following the 1991 collapse of the USSR, as in 1992 Tajikistan descended into a brutal civil war dominated by diehard Communists and Islamic militants. When it ended five years later with a UN-brokered agreement, more than 50,000 Tajiks had been killed in a nation of only 7.5 million, and more than one-tenth of the population had fled the country. In understanding the appeal of Islam among a people as downtrodden as the Tajiks, it is important to remember that Communism largely failed to improve their lives, while two decades of capitalism has enriched only a small portion of the country’s elite, leaving Abduallah Sixpack worse off than before, with a vast array of grudges.

As for the current administration, it is pinning its hopes on becoming Central Asia’s leading electricity exporter, seeking to complete the vast 3,600-megawatt Soviet-era Vakhsh River Rogun hydroelectric cascade, begun in 1976. Squeezing the population to support its glorius nationalist project, in December 2009 the Tajik government issued Rogun stock and made it compulsory for citizens to purchase nearly $700 worth of shares, a sum exceeding most Tajiks' annual income, in order to collect $600 million for construction to continue.

The project has aroused anxieties in neighboring Uzbekistan, which fears that Rogun would diminish downstream water flows of resources critically needed for Uzbekistan’s massive cotton crops.

So, what to do?

It is time that Washington and Moscow realize their commonality of interests in Tajikistan, staunching the drug trade and diluting the appeal of radical Islam. Accordingly, aid should be centered on improving life in the countryside and reviving regional agriculture, however dull a subject it may be. Furthermore, both countries should agree that Tajikistan as a military asset is off the table and instead assist it in recovering from the heinous damage inflicted by its civil war, which left most of the country’s Soviet-era infrastructure in ruins.

As long as the country remains a pawn in the new “Great Game,” its population will listen to the alluring call of its Islamic heritage, and, as both Russia and the U.S. have discovered to their cost, that chorus includes a number of voices whose song is not necessarily supportive of either society. For Tajikistan, its time to get back to basics, which means, above all, providing the means for a man to support his family. The country’s population is 7.5 million – how hard and expensive can it be, especially for a superpower blowing $120 billion a year in neighboring Afghanistan?

By. John C.K. Daly of  OilPrice.com

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  • Anonymous on July 14 2011 said:
    Some simple facts:* A rather large majority of people will always feel the need to use drugs, such as heroin, opium, nicotine, amphetamines, alcohol, sugar, or caffeine. * Due to Prohibition, the availability of mind-altering drugs has become so universal and unfettered, that in any city of the civilized world, any one of us would be able to procure practically any drug we wish within an hour.* The massive majority of people who use drugs do so recreationally - getting high at the weekend then up for work on a Monday morning. * A small minority of people will always experience drug use as problematic.* Throughout history, the prohibition of any mind-altering substance has always exploded usage rates, overcrowded jails, fueled organized crime, created rampant corruption of law-enforcement, even whole governments, and induced an incalculable amount of suffering and death.
  • Anonymous on July 14 2011 said:
    When the US infantry battalion I was in was stationed in Kobe (Japan), we had half a dozen users of hard drugs lounging around the place. They were spaced out most of the time, and gradually they were processed out of the army with dishonorable discharges.A couple of them were really intelligent guys, but drug use made it impossible for them to function normally. Then, when I got back to the US, I encountered the most intelligent person I knew as a boy and young man, and he was hooked.That was a long time ago, but I understood what was happening. Drug use is the cause of the decline in educational achievement in the US. It isn't a rapid but a slow decline, and eventually it will play havoc with the economic and social structure of the country. Note the prediction: havoc, not decline.Of course, maybe it is possible to argue that this is what the voters deserve - the great freedom and democracy that the US is trying to sell to the rest of the world.
  • Anonymous on July 15 2011 said:
    I have spent about two years in Tajikistan working alongside and living with Tajiks of various generations.First of all, thank you for writing about Tajikistan and doing so comprehensively and reasonably. There are a couple points you make that I would like to comment on.1) You say that communism largely failed to improve their lives. According to personal accounts, life during communism was much better there than it is now. I think that the same imposition of economic parity that crippled the better-off SSRs actually lifted Tajikistan (since it was, as you mentioned, on the bottom to begin with). This isn't to say communism was sustainable, though.2) I think you've overstated the pervasiveness of Islamic militancy. Tajikistan's government exaggerates the dangers to help justify their heavy-handed autocracy. While Islam is on the rise, militant Islam (while undoubtedly a potential future problem) isn't really a concern.
  • Student on July 22 2012 said:
    Thank for very comprehensive and individual reflection of personal views, which might appear to be not realistic due to lacking the references and reasonbale arguments.
    Mr. Daly, can you first answer to the most simplest question? What do you think that your "ever-life-dream" capitalism has gieven to the global community so far? Are we better off having experienced that unfairness, dominance in exploiting the planet's resources, getting rich at the expense of others? I guess, the most important thing for you is get deeper into economic analysis and knowledge to better represent your arguments possessing the validity and suitability.
    I start arguing regarding your "personal views" on aforementioned issues.
    To start with, the country is in gradual stage of economic and social development. Second, not all those views you expressed above can be validated because there are no grounds on them. It is just bubbled in a way media does to catch the attention.
    Third,everybody is aware of you dreamy "land", their poverty level and fairness...so on!
    Fourth,it is lacking appropriate valid arguements for supporting the points of view presented above.
    Fifth, Mr. Daly you would probably need to make a trip there, live there, experience the most hospitable nature, happiness and cultural life, and then write your cute "journalistic and artistic article".
    Sixth, today's globalized economy demands finding a common interest to cooperate on mutual basis, designing products meeting the demands of future generation and this pace, developing countries like Tajikistan can become a driving force for stimulating the economic growth.
    There are several economic reasons, why international investors should invest in Tajikistan:
    1. It is located in a place where the access to natural resources are available, this decreases the transportation cost thus driving the higher margins for international companies.
    2. Growing the highly educated young generation can serves as a human capital contributing to company's future prospects.
    3. The country takes the leading position on a global scale when it comes to green energy. It can serve as a role model in the region by spreading the knowledge about sustainable development and clean energy.
    4. Investment climate, business registration process and legal environment have been improved dramatically. This creates a future possibility for establishing high-tech small firms in the country.
    5.Unexploited economic opportunities still remain huge. Tourism, financial sector, energy resources and service sector.
    6. Positive externalities from neighbouring countries like China, creates synergies for investors to benefit from Tajikistan.
    7.The availability of labour force and intensification of female participation in labour force serve as a driving factor for rapid economic growth in Tajikistan. This has been successfully contributing to German economic growth as well.
    8.The country is focusing on building a good platform for knowledge sharing, international collaboration, improving internal and external communication systems and fostering the culture of international business collaboration.
    9. Previous statistical sources have showed that the foreign direct investment is being chanelled successfully to country, because of attaractive investment opportunities and high rate of return on invested capital compared to developed countries which is very low.
    10.Country is on its way to seek a membership in World Trade Organization. This gives additional leverage to stimulating international, creating trade surplus and driving economic growth. The output is improved living standards, access to worhty healthcare, and competitive educational institutions meeting the demand of next educational innovative systems.

    In the ends, thanks for your interest in reading those arguments made above.

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