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Could the Economic Crisis Fuel Violence in Central Asia?

19/06/2009

Between 1992 and 1997, tens of thousands of Tajiks died in the brutal civil war that followed independence. Often referred to as Central Asia’s ‘dirty war’, it featured mass civilian casualties and refugee flows, marauding criminal gangs and foreign jihadists, and the devastation of the fledgling nation’s economy and infrastructure. Probably, you have never heard of it.

The international media was a bit preoccupied at the time, what with conflict in Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia to deal with.

The war officially ended with the signing of peace accords in 1997, which did generate some attention as it allowed the Islamic Renewal Party to join the government (to date, the IRP remains the only Islamist political party to operate legally in Central Asia, although its political power has waned substantially).

Much has been made of these successful peace negotiations but it’s important to note that they did not bring enduring safety or stability for the nation as a whole. Indeed, barely one year afterward, a small-scale rebellion had to be crushed in northern Tajikistan; the IMU and other militants have traversed and settled in Tajik territory over the years; organised crime and narco-trafficking spawn associated violence; and politically motivated murders and kidnappings have continued since the war.

Civil war research is notoriously factious but Paul Collier, for one, estimates that only about half the countries that experience civil war are able to make it through the following decade without falling back into open conflict. In this context, Tajikistan has been lucky. There are a number of contributing factors – political repression, ‘conflict fatigue’, international engagement – but perhaps the most compelling variable is the massive level of labour migration to Russia and other countries, which has removed from Tajikistan the demographic most likely to spur and sustain political violence.

With the global financial crisis hitting the industries that employ these migrants, how likely is it that violence, radicalisation and instability could increase significantly within Tajikistan?

Official estimates are that 800,000 Tajiks (mostly men in their twenties and thirties) left the country last year to find work; this figure happens to match the country’s immigration quota for Russia, however, and international organisations estimate the true number to be more than 1 million. This amounts to nearly half the country’s workforce.

Tajikistan’s political and economic survival largely depends on the remittances sent home by labour migrants. The IMF estimates that remittances constitute 54 per cent of the country’s GDP, the highest percentage in the world in 2008 (and this does not even capture the full scope of informal money transfers).

According to the International Crisis Group , ‘Most specialists believe that migrant money has in recent years provided for the basic needs of 40 to 60 per cent of the population, though some economists put the figure even higher. Given the minimal amount budgeted for items such as health and education, this amounts to a migrant-funded welfare system’.

Tajik labour migrants have been concentrated in the Russian construction industry. Now, however, that sector has collapsed due to the economic crisis. The safety valve that benefited so many Tajiks – ordinary citizens as well as the ruling regime – is being dramatically downsized.

Jobs are scarce and the Russian government intends to reduce the number of incoming migrant workers. Xenophobic attacks on Central Asians have increased.

This leaves a large cohort of young, unemployed, poor and frustrated men in Tajikistan until the global economy revives. The loss of remittances means a sharp rise in poverty, malnutrition and disease – this in a country that already goes without electricity and heat for much of the winter, suffers from plagues of locusts, and already has an official unemployment rate of 48 per cent and poverty rate of 53 per cent.

Hope and optimism are in short supply: President Rakhmon is entering his seventeenth year in power without having sufficiently invested in the country; corruption is rife; narco-trafficking and drug addiction plague the population; infrastructure and agriculture are crumbling.

Given these desperate conditions, how likely is it that violence and conflict might erupt again in Tajikistan? Listening to the experts, the verdict is mixed: some say the lingering memories of the horrors of war continue to suppress violent tendencies; others say these memories are fading and will not contain conflict for much longer. Some say the regime will be able to continue to restrain potential opposition while others say Rakhmon is on his last legs.

While it is clear that Tajiks are enduring terrible conditions, poverty and hardship alone do not inexorably lead to political violence. There is no consensus on whether the key variables that might spark conflict will emerge in the country or not.

But secondly, how likely is it that these conditions will increase the appeal of radical movements inside Tajikistan? This is a very difficult question given government repression of such groups and a lack of available data on their activities.

It is clear that the Tajik regime is increasingly cracking down on religious groups of all kinds; for instance, Salafism was declared illegal in January of this year. However, as it is the regime does not have firm control over all parts of the country; should it begin to fall apart, or should domestic conditions deteriorate to the point of chaos, it would not be surprising to see the emergence of religiously or ideologically motivated opposition groups.

This is a tricky question and I’d like to return to it in a future post.

Bottom line: Why should you care about Tajikistan? Well, beyond the obvious humanitarian imperatives, the US and NATO are increasingly relying on the ‘Northern Supply Route’ to support operations in Afghanistan. Serious instability and violence in Tajikistan may spill over into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The mostly unguarded Tajik-Afghan border facilitates the transnational opium and arms trade. At the rate things are going, Tajikistan is looking less like a bulwark against the violence and extremism in Afghanistan, and more like a potential part of that problem.

Tajikistan’s problems will not be solved by quick fixes or one-off injections of foreign aid. But emergency measures are required in this case if the effects of reduced labour migration are to be managed and the potential for instability and violence forestalled.