Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Poverty is Biggest Threat to Peace

If their country is to have a future, Tajikistan's regional powers must work together to repair an economy devastated by war and natural disasters.
By Rashid Abdullo

Five years after the end of Tajikistan's bloody civil war, there are concerns that the country's fragile peace could be shattered by the pitiful state of the economy.

Refugee from southern Tajikistan who arrived with her child in Dushanbe.
Photo by Sergey Zhukov.

According to the UN, more than 80 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. The minimum wage is around five som - two US dollars - a month, while the monthly cost of basic consumer goods for the average household is ten times this figure.

"The biggest threat to stability in Tajikistan is its economic state," Ivo Petrov, special representative of the UN General Secretary in Tajikistan, told IWPR.

It is a crisis that has been more than ten years in the making. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan was left without subsidies, estimated to account for as much as 40 per cent of the gross domestic product, GDP, by the end of the Eighties.

Still reeling from that body blow, the newly independent republic experienced a sharp drop in production as traditional markets for Tajik goods dried up.

Tajikistan was then rocked by a civil war which claimed tens of thousands of lives, drove half a million Tajiks from their homeland and left more than 60,000 children orphaned.

Entire villages were burned down and many farms destroyed, while military checkpoints were erected by opposing sides, effectively cutting economic ties between different regions and hastening the area's decline. The full cost of the civil war is calculated at seven billion dollars - an enormous sum for a country with a population of just 6.5 million.

The cycle of disaster is not yet over. Three years of drought followed by flooding have caused tremendous damage to the land, particularly in the Hatlon Oblast in the south of the country.

In an address to parliament this spring, Tajikistan president Emomali Rakhmonov estimated the total cost of the drought to be 800 million US dollars - several times the country's annual budget.

Academic Talbak Nazarov stresses that although the GDP has jumped from 1.7 per cent in 1997 to 10.2 per cent in 2001, it is still less than half the size it was when the country announced its independence.

In 2000, the GDP was only 41 per cent of its 1991 figure, with industrial production running at 42 per cent and agriculture at 73 per cent. However, manufacturing output has since fallen and now stands at only 18 per cent of its level in the early Nineties.

Unemployment remains a huge problem. While government statistics claim that only six per cent of the population is out of work, this covers only the registered jobless and experts suggest the real figure could be as high as 60 per cent. Every spring, around one million Tajiks are driven abroad to find seasonal work in Russia and other CIS states. A large number leave their homeland altogether.

The situation shows no sign of improving, and is worsened by a yawning gap in status between different regions. Although the south of the country currently wields the bulk of the political power, it is nowhere near as developed as the north.

The history of the area reveals that Tajikistan's northern areas were absorbed into the Russian Empire in the second half of the 19th century, at a time when its economy was booming, and as a result became prosperous and highly developed. In contrast, the southern and eastern provinces remained the most backward part of the emirate of Bukhara.

During the Soviet era, serious steps were taken to improve the southern regions.

Modern agriculture was introduced and a relatively good industrial base developed. Improved living conditions led to a sharp increase in population.

But the growing significance of the south was not reflected in the corridors of power, where representatives of the northern regions still held sway.

The first to challenge that power were Islamic groups in the east. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, these factions took advantage of the confusion and threw down the gauntlet to a north now stripped of the support of its traditional ally Moscow.

This prompted southern groups - who opposed the idea of creating an Islamic state in Tajikistan - to make their bid for power.

The struggle then exploded into a full-scale civil war that affected all regions except the north, which escaped the fighting as it is cut off from the rest Tajikistan by mountain ranges.

Even as the conflict brought the southern political elite to power in Tajikistan, the north was maintaining its economic dominance, and that situation has remained largely unchanged. In the past few years, only one of Tajikistan's four regions, the northern Sogd Oblast, has balanced its books.

Analysts fear that this imbalance could result in a civil war every bit as serious as the last. They agree that to protect its hard-won peace and avoid new internal conflicts, Tajikistan must reverse the economic decline of the south and allow the northern regions a bigger say in the decision-making process. The south's political elite must also develop a national rather than local mindset.

"Despite the peace, a range of critical economic, socio-political and humanitarian issues must be solved in the interests of strengthening stability in Tajikistan," Ibrohim Usmon, international issues adviser to the president, told IWPR.

While the process will be neither swift nor easy, the country's regional powers will have to enter into dialogue, embrace compromise and learn the lessons of the past. Tajikistan's future will depend on it.

Rashid Abdullo is a political scientist in Dushanbe

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