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Tajikistan Struggles in Post-Soviet Poverty

By Pamela Constable, Washington Post, Monday 12 February 2001; Page A14

MOSKOVSKY, Tajikistan -- The plowed earth waits for seeds and fertilizer that never arrive, the Soviet-built irrigation aqueducts are crumbled and useless, the abandoned factories rust behind signs in bold red Russian. Able-bodied men spend their days in chilly bazaars, squatting beside used clothing and tools they hope to sell for pennies.

This forlorn and wintry country in Central Asia is trapped in time. Its 6 million people are struggling to emerge from the physical and ideological ruins of the Soviet Union, which controlled Tajikistan for six decades, and to heal the wounds of a five-year civil war between ideological and ethnic factions that followed the Soviet collapse in 1991.

But the newly independent and pacified country is ill-equipped to meet the competitive demands of its fledgling semi-free economy and nascent democracy. Teachers' salaries have fallen to $5 a month, 80 percent of the populace lives in poverty and a severe regional drought has slashed the national wheat harvest by half.

"We are eating only bread and tea. Sometimes we find carrots and onions, but it is never enough," said Rajabgul Holnazarov, 62, a wrinkled woman in a flowered head scarf who was waiting in line for a free sack of flour from the U.N. World Food Program in the southern town of Qabodian.

Holnazarov toiled for 48 years on a Soviet collective farm, but she has not received her pension in more than a year. She bore seven children and was awarded three "Mother Hero" medals by Soviet authorities for producing such a large family, but now her children are grown and jobless. "I lost the medals long ago," she said.

As if the whims of history and nature were not punishment enough, Tajikistan has also become a victim of geography. It shares a 1,000-mile border with Afghanistan, a country in even worse straits, wracked by drought and a civil war between the ruling Taliban Islamic militia and opposition forces based near the border.

Although the Tajik side is heavily patrolled by Russian Border Forces under an agreement with the Tajik government, Afghanistan's problems are pressing hard against it. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been trying to flee their country, but Tajik authorities will not let them cross the border, arguing that many are drug smugglers and fighters, and that their ailing country cannot withstand a refugee onslaught.

Since September, about 12,000 Afghan refugees have been stranded on two snow-covered islands in a wide, marshy riverbed that winds between the two countries. Shooting and shelling erupt sporadically from both sides. Authorities would not permit foreign journalists to visit the refugees last week, but U.N. officials said they have been given food, clothing and tents.

During the Tajik civil war from 1992 to 1997, Afghanistan welcomed thousands of Tajiks, but now Tajikistan has turned a cold shoulder to its desperate neighbors. Tajikistan also plays host to the Afghan opposition government and its armed forces, led by an ethnic Tajik commander, whose war with the Taliban keeps the refugee crisis boiling.

"The refugees would be a big problem, even for a strong country. But Tajikistan has serious economic and security concerns," said Saleh Registani, military attache for the Afghan opposition government in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. "We try to help them, but the Taliban have military positions near the river. It is very difficult."

Tajikistan is also trying to fend off the influence of Islamic extremism, which clashes with its religious tradition of Muslim moderation and with the secular lifestyle that developed under the Soviets.

The most worrisome cross-border export, however, is drugs. Afghanistan's poppy crop is used to produce 70 percent of the world's heroin, and although most drugs leave Afghanistan via Pakistan, U.N. officials estimate that about one-third of the contraband now passes through Tajikistan. Corruption and poverty provide fertile soil for drug trafficking, and Tajikistan is rife with both.

Organized crime groups have emerged that are too powerful for the country's weak civic and political institutions to fight. Money from extortion and drugs has reportedly financed a string of chic new eateries and bars in Dushanbe. At the other end of the economic scale, local officials said, many desperate, unemployed Tajiks are easily persuaded to become drug couriers, earning up to $100 - an enormous sum here - to carry a kilogram of heroin from the Afghan border to Dushanbe.

The Tajik government formed a national Drug Control Agency in October, and officials in border areas have been trying to educate residents about the risks of carrying drugs: addiction, heavy criminal sentences if they are caught, and retribution from Afghan suppliers if they fail to pay for shipments.

"In the Soviet time, no one here had ever heard of narcotics. Now it is our most burning issue," said Nisso Bobeva, deputy chairman of Moskovsky district, which shares a 300-mile border with Afghanistan. "Seventy percent of our young men are unemployed and cannot support their families. They know they can be executed for carrying half a kilo, but the money is still worth the risk."

In one border village, Sairob, the incongruous sight of BMWs parked next to horse-drawn carts on streets lined with heatless huts suggests that drugs have already dug deeply into the economy. The local clinic has treated several cases of heroin withdrawal, a problem not seen here before 1997.

For most Tajiks, their struggles are more basic: how to survive honestly on little or no money, and how to adapt to the bewildering shift from a welfare state to an unfamiliar system where they are expected to sell their own crops and choose their own leaders.

Hundreds of thousands of peasants still plant and pick cotton on collective farms, the bedrock of rural life for half a century, but no one pays their salaries anymore. Cotton exports are slowly increasing, but the drought has aggravated food shortages caused by collapsed irrigation systems, lack of money for seed and fertilizer, and half-implemented land reforms.

"This area was the breadbasket of Tajikistan, but now all the Soviet infrastructure is gone, and no investment or development aid is coming in," said one World Food Program worker in Qabodian. The program provides nearly a half-million Tajiks with either free food or wage-rations in exchange for cleaning irrigation ditches or planting small plots of land.

In cities and towns, electricity and running water often fail in the vast blocks of Soviet-built apartments, and alcoholism is widespread. Former professionals are reduced to peddling homemade bread or preserves in frigid bazaars, and thousands of children do odd jobs in the streets instead of attending school.

Attempting to boost the country's morale, the government is supplanting the icons of Soviet communism with appeals to traditional Tajik culture and national harmony. Statues of Lenin have been replaced by portraits of Somoni, a legendary Tajik king, and billboards urge the populace to strive for postwar reconciliation rather than Soviet glory.

But many Tajiks said they have not had a good year since the Soviets left, and that they have little confidence the new system of political and economic competition will improve their lives.

"What is the point of giving our opinion? Nothing changes, nothing gets better," said Ibrahim Amirov, 35, an off-duty policeman buying bread in the southern city of Kurgan-Tyube. "We are living in the 17th century, and we are blocked in every sphere. Democracy is here, but without money, how can we practice it?"

2001 The Washington Post Company