Poor Tajik Economy Raises Worries

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — Power shortages and high food prices in Tajikistan are causing concern in the West about the stability of the country of 7 million people.
Russia, which sees Tajikistan as a buffer guarding its traditional sphere of interest in the region, is also watching closely for signs of trouble.
Some Western diplomats say the situation is at a critical point after power shortages, which they say left many people feeling abandoned by the government. “The discontent is real,” a senior Western diplomat said. “We’ve had government officials tell us things such as ‘We are lucky we’re still here after last winter.’”
“People are suffering quite severely,” a Western ambassador said.
President Imomali Rakhmon, elected in 1994 and de facto head of state since 1992, tolerates little dissent. Referring to the next scheduled presidential election, the Western ambassador said: “I don’t think they are going to be reconciled by the fact that in five years’ time they can always vote for somebody else.”
Consumer prices rose 19.7 percent in 2007. Gross domestic product grew by 3.2 percent year on year in the first quarter of 2008, compared with 7.8 percent growth in 2007.
“There is nothing we can do. We are simply trying to survive,” said Khikoyat, a mother of six who lives in a small mud-brick house outside the capital, Dushanbe. “A lot of people live without electricity and there is almost no water to grow crops. It is very difficult.”
The government began daily rationing of electricity and gas this winter to help millions of Tajiks survive harsh weather, although supplies have now been partially restored.
The diplomats estimated that up to 1 million Tajiks have left their homeland in search of a better life, particularly in Russia, to help their families survive. Up to two-thirds of the economy relies on remittances from Tajiks working abroad.
“There are almost no real jobs, there is nothing,” said Makhmadnabi Shamsiddinov, who spends most of the year working in Russia. “My wife works on a local farm and her wage is just enough to buy some butter and milk.”
Diplomats are reluctant to predict what form frustrations may take in a country where the opposition movement is weak and fragmented.
“We’ve all got an interest in staying in Tajikistan and making sure it doesn’t become a failed state,” a Western ambassador said. “It’s not the area in the world where you can afford to have a country that’s gone wrong.”
Dushanbe, a city of 1 million people, is largely quiet. But many houses bear the bullet scars of civil war in the 1990s.
“If last year it was rare to hear ordinary people openly expressing discontent, then now it’s everywhere,” said Rakhmatillo Zoyirov, an opposition leader. He said there had been a number of small regional protests in the past few months.
Rakhmon has vowed to press on with reform and says it is up to the people to bring about change.
“It is known that the development of a democratic, lawful and secular state largely depends on the level of people’s education and knowledge,” he said. “The level of awareness of our people in terms of law and human rights are unsatisfactory.”