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

Tajik Resettlement Project Aims to Help Poorest

Families hit by unemployment and flooding get a chance to start again, though some analysts suspect their relocation to a sensitive border area is a form of social engineering.
By IWPR staff
A scheme to resettle families from southern Tajikistan to an area close to the Uzbek border is intended to offer some of the country’s most vulnerable people a fresh start in life.

Some analysts say the move is a controversial one in a country where ethnic and regional differences are an important political factor.

Under the programme, 1,000 families from the Kulyab (Kulob) area are being relocated to areas close to Tursunzade, a town west of the capital Dushanbe.

The government says the scheme is all about tackling poverty in one of the country’s poorest regions. “The government is conducting a phased resettlement of people from the overpopulated Dangara, Muminabad, Farhor, Moskovsky [now known as Hamadoni] and Shurabad regions, where unemployment rates are high,” said Deputy Agriculture Minister Sadokat Sanginova. As well as the districts listed by Sanginova, settlers will also come from the Vose and Khovaling districts and from Kulyab itself.

These areas around Kulyab are almost entirely rural, with little industry, and many people there have few economic prospects and no homes or land. Tursunzade, on the other hand, is home to the country’s major industrial producer, a giant aluminium plant, and is surrounded by fertile farmlands whose produce is easily transported for sale in the capital, just 80 kilometres away.

Southern Tajikistan has been especially affected by the mass labour migration in recent years, in which hundreds of thousands of men are away doing seasonal work in Russia and Kazakstan while their wives tend the farm at home. Some never come back.

As well as chronic poverty, the resettlement programme also addresses a more immediate crisis facing people in the Hamadoni and Vose areas, where many homes were swept away by severe flooding last year after the Panj river on the Tajik-Afghan border burst its banks. These homeless settlers are being described as “ecological migrants”.

Anvar Boboev, the head of the labour and welfare ministry’s migration service, said the total number of settlers would equate to 5,000 people.

According to Boboev, the government has identified unused land near Tursunzade that these people could usefully occupy.

“The two areas allotted to the settlers are located close to the border with Uzbekistan. It’s worth noting that this land hasn’t been populated for several years now,” he said, adding that “many heads of households from Kulyab have come to take a look at the land recently”.

Boboev added that the farmland was short of water, but local government chiefs had promised to install irrigation systems by spring next year.

Priority is being given to professionals like teachers, doctors and vets, and skilled workers like tractor drivers and specialist farmers.

A government official told IWPR that another priority group consisted of young people with little hope of finding jobs in their home region, who would be trained to work at the aluminium plant or other industrial units around Tursunzade.

As well as land, each family will be given a grant of 3,000 somoni, worth about 1,000 US dollars, so that they can build houses.

The offer has been seized on by people left behind by the economic problems that followed the collapse of the Soviet system – under which the Tajik republic was subsidised from Moscow – and the ensuing civil war.

A reporter based in Qorghan-Tepa (Kurgan-Tyube), a town in southwest Tajikistan, described the desperate situation facing many rural people in the south generally, “There are virtually no men left in the villages – and men often commit suicide because of their hopeless situation. Many women have become [virtual] widows since their husbands have been in Russia for six or seven years and have set up new families there. Earlier, they would have been sending money home for food and clothes for the children, but now they don’t.”

Women’s options, too, are limited. “Many young women are unable to go on to further education, because their parents won’t let them,” said a woman’s rights activist called Jamila. “There aren’t enough factories where they could work as seamstresses or do sewing as home workers…. The girls here are very good at stitching, spinning and weaving, but unfortunately there’s no place where they can use their skills. It means there’s an excess labour force.”

To avoid staying unmarried, which is seen as highly undesirable as well as a burden on the parents, many young women become second or third wives, in a society which has seen a resurgence of polygamy even though the law prohibits it.

Around Kulyab, the large collective farms of the Soviet era – many of them growing cotton - persist in the form of “jamoats”, but harsh economic realities have led them to shed many of their workers.

Saidmahmad Oripov has one leg and in the absence of adequate welfare systems, is forced to beg in Kulyab’s town centre. He lives with his wife, who is also disabled, and two children in a trailer in the village of Tugarak in the Vose district. But the jamoat farmland has been privatised and the family has been told to move out.

“I’ve asked the local authorities to give me some land, but they said there wasn’t any available,” Oripov told IWPR. “They’ve offered me a chance to move to Tursunzade - and I’ve agreed.”

Another village, Tagi Namak, which forms part of the same jamoat as Tugarak, typifies the problems of rural Kulyab areas. With a population of 25,000 and a high birth rate, 120 marriages a year mean more households looking to set up on their own land – but there is none available.

In the last three years, the local authorities have issued lease rights on only 20 tiny plots of a tenth of a hectare each in this village. But the land is virtually useless as it doesn’t have artificial irrigation – essential in this arid environment. Six years ago an official ban was placed on the distribution of irrigated farmland, due to the acute shortage of land in Vose district.

“It is impossible to survive without an allotment of land,” said Ahyon Ismoilov, who lives in Tugarak. “I’ve got four children, and as well as my family, my three brothers and their families all live in my father’s house.

“They’re waiting for me to go [to Tursunzade] so that my younger brother can take over my land.”

Ubaid Sharipov, a retired teacher in Tagi Namak, is looking forward to moving to a new location after his house was destroyed in last year’s flooding.

“Our house was washed away. I have several sons, and I can’t afford to buy a new house or apartment. Move to Tursunzade is the only choice I have,” he said. “I don’t know how we are going to live there, though. The land’s good, but you need money for construction materials to build a house. They’ve promised us 1,000 dollars, but that’s not nearly enough.”

The apparent space in the labour market in Tursunzade and the neighbouring Regar district would seem to make the resettlement programme eminently sensible from an economic point of view.

However, some commentators are concerned that the government may have a secondary motive in moving Tajiks to a sensitive frontier zone with a substantial ethnic Uzbek population.

The country’s recent history means such a policy could carry considerable risks. The different areas that make up Tajikistan have distinct identities, which in some cases were exacerbated by the 1992-97 civil war which was in part fought along regional lines.

At the start of the civil war, a “Kulyabi faction” came to dominate the Tajik government, while the opposition guerrilla movement was formed along different regional lines. President Imomali Rahmonov, who has led the country since 1992, and won a further presidential term in November, is from the Kulyab area himself, as are many members of the administration.

Poor rural Kulyabis – although they have not benefited from their leaders’ patronage – might therefore be seen as a particularly loyal group.

Then there is Uzbekistan, a powerful neighbour with which Rahmonov’s government has had a troubled and sometimes frosty relationship. In past years, the government in Tashkent was suspected of encouraging ethnic Uzbek figures such as Mahmud Khudoiberdiev, who led a succession of army mutinies against Rahmonov.

Tursunzade’s aluminium plant – still a lucrative source of export revenues despite its decrepit state – was the focus of clashes in 1996-97. A prominent local figure at the centre of the struggle for control of the plant was Ibod Boymatov, who had clear links to both Tashkent and Khudoiberdiev.

Hojimahmad Umarov, a political analyst based in Dushanbe, is in no doubt that the government is acting out of a complex set of political and ethnic considerations.

“The reason for resettling people from these areas…. is clearly that this [Tursunzade/Regar] border area is largely populated by Uzbeks,” he told IWPR. “It’s being done to avoid a repeat of events in the Nineties…. To ensure that this situation does not happen again, you need to have Tajiks living along the border. It being done in the interests of national security.

“No one has discussed the matter in public, but everyone is guessing that this is the case.”

Shokirjon Hakimov, a political analyst, said that if the government merely wanted to use up empty farmland, it would have done better to recruit Tajiks living in the Hissar valley, in which Tursunzade is located.

“The Hissar valley has its own specific ways, its own traditions and customs,” he said. “If there really was a need, it would have made more sense to settle these villages with Tajiks from elsewhere in the valley.”

Hakimov said there was a risk that if there were tensions between local people and the outsiders from Kulyab, “things could play out as an ethnic dispute, with consequences that are hard to predict”.

In Tursunzade, reactions were mixed to the prospect of settlers from Kulyab.

Some were openly concerned about the idea. “We don’t need these Kulyab people here,” said a market trader in the city, who did not want to be named. “They will make their own rules.”

A man who gave his first name as Said, reflected the view that the move is a deliberate social engineering project to shift the ethnic balance, “It’s our leadership’s policy – they fear that Tursunzade’s residents will…. ask for a referendum to hand the area over to Uzbekistan.”

Others in the town were more welcoming – one Uzbek schoolgirl, for example, hoped the new arrivals would offer her more of a chance to learn to speak Tajik properly.

As there are only 5,000 households involved, there is a good chance their presence will have less of an impact than people think on both labour market and society generally in this densely-populated part of the country.

Halimakhon Sultanova, who works at the aluminium plant, said, “I have nothing against people from our own country moving here. They won’t be taking our houses, and they won’t take our jobs away, so why should we be against the re-settlement?”