Of all the impoverished countries that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan stands alone as the poorest. While economists talk about the rapid macroeconomic growth of the country, most of ordinary Tajiks have not witnessed the brighter side of the economic progress. Amidst this dismal scenario, back in November 2013, Tajikistan re-elected Emomali Rahmon as its leader for a seven-year term. A former chairman of a collective farm, Rahmon had dominated Tajik politics ever since the country became independent in 1991. He became the president in 1994, won for the second time in 1999, and then again in 2003 and 2006.
This would surely have been an impressive political resume had it not been for the fact that he faced no serious challengers. The question is: why do Tajiks repeatedly elect Rahmon despite endemic poverty? The government of Tajikistani can best be summed up in two words: nepotism and cronyism. Rahmon’s closest relatives and friends occupy most of the key positions. All vital economic resources and industries are controlled by a select few, and while the rate of industrialization is positive, the rift between the rich and poor keeps widening.
Owing to such a setup, the poor masses in the country obviously have a hard time making ends meet. Make no mistake Tajikistan is doing its best to adhere to international financial suggestions, and the projected macroeconomic growth for the country is 6 to 7 percent per year. However, this growth is also accompanied by rising inflation. Unfortunately, the wealthy profit from the growth and the poor are left to deal with inflation. As per government records, the volume of imports is roughly two times higher than that of exports. Prices of everyday commodities keep rising, and ordinary Tajiks cannot find jobs.
Owing to rampant unemployment, many young Tajiks are forced to migrate in order to seek job opportunities. Tajikistan seems to be leading the race in this aspect: out of the 7.5 million Tajiks, a little over 1 million Tajiks are working abroad. Furthermore, Tajikistan is also the global leader in terms of financial remittances (in 2011, the World Bank stated that remittances constituted 47 percent of the national GDP). Professions such as medicine and education have become notorious for their low pay when compared to other countries. The average monthly salary of a university professor or a doctor varies between $70 and $150. Even though there is a provision for free healthcare, medicinal infrastructure is not the best.
If life is so difficult for the average Tajik, why isn’t the international community paying more attention? Surprisingly, the non-state media in Tajikistan is fairly free. While there have been cases of certain restrictions on the media, the Tajik media, in general, happens to be quite vocal about its criticism of the government. Additionally, while Tajikistan may not be enjoying the fruits of prosperity, it is one of the select few countries in Central Asia that can boast relative stability. Rahmon’s rule has provided Tajikistan with much-needed support from both Russia and the West, including the European Union. For example, Tajikistan enjoys favors from Russia - economic privileges as well as investments in the hydropower sector. In return, Rahmon ratified the presence of a Russian military base in his country (incidentally on the eve of the presidential elections).
Similarly, the West respects Rahmon. Factors such as the impending withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan and the strategic location of Tajikistan have persuaded the West to turn a blind eye to Tajikistan’s internal affairs. High-profile economic crimes as well as misuse of power are serious issues indeed, but since NATO forces require Tajik territory and air space, the West turns a blind eye to these issues.
Tajikistan shares a long common border with Afghanistan, which was handed over to Tajik troops after Russian border guards left in 2005. If Rahmon is removed, Tajikistan’s relatively stable regime might be replaced by an Islamist regime imported from Afghan lands. Furthermore, having a pro-Western regime in Tajikistan ensures that drug trafficking and/or potential aggression are eliminated. As a result, neither Russia nor the United States are to be bothered if Tajiks are forced to purchase vegetables at ridiculously high prices. Larger issues such as Tajikistan’s location are at stake here.
Lastly, the Tajik population has not forgotten the scars of the civil war. A peace treaty was signed with Russia in 1997, but the memories of destruction still remain. Fear of instability and nightmares of the civil war neutralize any chances of a Tajik Spring. However, many Tajiks would surmise that the current authoritarian and inefficient regime is obviously better than civil strife, and dismal economic prospects are preferable over unrest and bloodshed.