History of Tajikistan

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Tajikistan > Map Economy History

IN 1991 THE FIVE SOVIET REPUBLICS of Central Asia--Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan--were faced for the first time with the prospect of existence as independent states. In critical respects, they were unprepared for this event: their economies all had performed specific tasks in the Soviet system, mainly the supply of raw materials; only outdated Soviet-era political structures remained behind in the five republics, with no tradition of national political institutions; and the end of the union fragmented the armed forces units of the former Soviet Union that remained on the republics' territory. In the 1990s, the progress of the five republics toward resolving these problems has been quite uneven. The republics with the richest natural resources--Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan--have developed the strongest economies--albeit with serious defects in each case--and have attracted substantial Western investment. In all cases, movement away from the Soviet model of strong, one-party central government has been extremely slow. Some degree of military autonomy has appeared in all republics save Tajikistan, which still is bedeviled by rebel forces and a porous southern border. At the same time, the strategic doctrine of all Central Asian countries remains based on protection from Russia's military.

The total area of the five republics is approximately 3.9 million square kilometers, slightly more than 40 percent of the area of the United States and less than one-quarter of the area of Russia (see fig. 1). The region stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east, and from central Siberia in the north to Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the south. The area of the republics varies greatly: Kazakstan, by far the largest, occupies about 2.7 million square kilometers, more than two-thirds of the region. The smallest republic, Kyrgyzstan, occupies only 198,500 square kilometers. The Central Asian republics also feature quite different topographies, varying from the wide expanses of desert in primarily flat Kazakstan and Turkmenistan to the steep slopes and river valleys of mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (see fig. 2).

The region contains enormous natural and agricultural resources. All five republics have favorable agricultural regions and some combination of attractive minerals and fuels. Their industrial bases include trained workers, and their populations have relatively high educational levels and literacy rates. Unfortunately, the moribund, highly inefficient system through which the Soviet Union exploited those resources has proved very difficult to disassemble. The Central Asians have suffered all the typical transitional ills of former communist states moving toward a market economy: erratic supply of critical industrial inputs, increased unemployment, sharply increased inflation, declining capacity utilization and output by industry, and acute shortages of goods. In response, all five governments have pledged meaningful reform, but obstacles such as unworkable government structure, ethnic rivalries, and a variety of social tensions have made all five move cautiously.

Central Asia has a rich history to which numerous tribes and nationalities have contributed over at least 2,500 years. A vital factor in the history of the southern part of the region was its location astride the most direct trade route between China and Europe, the so-called Silk Route, which began to develop in the heyday of the Roman Empire (see fig. 3). Cities such as Samarqand (Samarkand) and Bukhoro (Bukhara), founded by Iranians, became powerful cultural and commercial centers as East-West trade increased. That prosperity made part or all of the region the object of many conquests (including those by the Arabs in the eighth century A.D., several Turkic groups beginning in the ninth century, and the Mongols in the early thirteenth century). The Arabs and the Turks brought Islam to much of Central Asia. Meanwhile, the northern part of the region was inhabited by nomadic herding peoples, including the Turkic predecessors of the Kazaks and Kyrgyz, who also fell under the control of the Mongols.

In the sixteenth century, the Uzbeks established powerful khanates along the Silk Route. Those entities flourished until the nineteenth century, when they were overtaken gradually by the traders and settlers of the expanding Russian Empire. The Russians moved southward from the steppes of Kazakstan in search of trade and later of the cotton that could be grown in present-day Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In the ensuing decades, cotton became the vital economic magnet for increased Russian occupation, and large tracts of the region were devoted to that crop to supply Russia's domestic needs.

In 1917 the region passed from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union, with little participation by its inhabitants. Full Soviet control did not occur until the mid-1920s, as guerrilla bands continued to resist Soviet authority. In the 1920s, four of the five republics came into existence for the first time as Soviet authorities drew borders in anticipation of reordering all of Central Asian society. (Kyrgyzstan gained full republic status in 1936.) In the 1930s, the primarily agricultural region was traumatized by the forced collectivization campaign of Joseph V. Stalin's regime; episodes of widespread famine were common. (By 1900 the Kazak, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen nomads already had suffered massive disruption of their traditional lifestyles as a result of Russian settlers taking their grazing land for farms.)

Throughout the Soviet period, the Central Asian republics participated in the life of the union in a rather peripheral sense, and many phases of cultural life were unaffected by Soviet rule. Local communist parties suffered the same purges as those in other republics, but they exercised little political influence in Moscow. Regional economies were stunted by increased demands for production of cotton and other specifically assigned items. As was discovered in the 1980s, decades of Soviet intensive cultivation caused massive pollution, from which the region still suffers. Interrepublican animosities over access to scarce resources went largely ignored by Soviet authorities. The more liberal Soviet regime of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985-91) saw increased airing of grievances that long had been withheld by the peoples of the Central Asian republics, but before 1991 no organized movement for independence had evolved from that discontent.

The five post-Soviet states of Central Asia still are defined by the arbitrary borders created in the early years of the Soviet era, and the demarcation among them still fails to correspond to the ethnic and linguistic situation of the region. Thus, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have substantial Uzbek minorities, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have large numbers of their respective neighbor's people. Kazakstan has few Central Asian people of other nationalities; its largest minorities are Russian, Ukrainian, and German.

Until the 1990s, the Soviet Central Asian states were viewed from the outside world largely as parts of a single, homogeneous region. Since 1991, however, the Western world has begun to discover substantial differences in almost all aspects of those new nations. The West also has discovered the possibility of commercial gain from oil, natural gas, gold, and other natural resources abundant in the region. The presence of these materials was known in the Soviet era, but they were accessible only by way of Moscow.

In responding to their neighbors in the new independence period, the policy makers of the five states have moved in two contrary directions: toward establishing common goals and greater unity in a regional grouping, and toward individual economic and political development and identification with countries outside the region. The philosophical ideal of Pan-Turkism, an ethnically based unity concept that originated among Central Asian intellectuals in the nineteenth century, still receives support, but relatively few concrete steps have been taken to realize the ideal. Furthermore, the people of Tajikistan are of predominantly Persian rather than Turkic origin. Meanwhile, Central Asians have placed special emphasis on ethnic self-differentiation as a belated reaction against the stereotyping of non-Slavs that was common practice in the Soviet Union. That ethnic generalization continues in the Russian Federation, which still exerts enormous influence in the Central Asian republics.

The most important single cultural commonality among the republics is the practice of Sunni Islam, which is the professed religion of a very large majority of the peoples of the five republics and which has experienced a significant revival throughout the region in the 1990s. Propaganda from Russia and from the ruling regimes in the republics identifies Islamic political activity as a vague, monolithic threat to political stability everywhere in the region. However, the role of Islam in the five cultures is far from uniform, and its role in politics has been minimal everywhere except in Tajikistan. For Kazaks, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen, whose society was based on a nomadic lifestyle that carried on many traditional tribal beliefs after their nominal conversion, Islam has had a less profound influence on culture than for the sedentary Tajik and Uzbek Muslims, who have a conventional religious hierarchy.

Regional economic cooperation, another type of unity that has received substantial lip service in the 1990s, has failed to materialize on a large scale. All five republics joined the Economic Cooperation Organization shortly after independence, and Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan established a limited common market in 1994. But Uzbekistan vetoed the membership of unstable Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan refused to join. Existing arrangements within the free-trade zone have not significantly promoted large-scale commerce within the group of three. For all five republics, Russia remains the top trading partner because much of the emphasis in their agricultural and industrial infrastructures remains the same as when the republics had assigned roles in supplying Moscow. Those roles and dependence on Russian trade are changing slowly in the mid-1990s, however, as diversification occurs.

Several factors encourage economic rivalry rather than cooperation. Water, a crucial resource for agriculture and power generation, has been the object of bitter bilateral and multilateral disputes both before and after independence. In the 1990s, the republics at the headwaters of major rivers, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have chafed at apportionment of water consumption favoring downstream consumers Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan has complained about excessive water consumption by the Uzbekistanis upstream. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have come close to conflict over water in the Fergana Valley, where vital agricultural reform and land privatization programs are endangered by unresolved water disputes.

The republics still offer a similar range of commodities for trade. Their common emphasis on cotton, natural gas, and oil limits the potential for advantageous commerce within the group and fosters rivalry in trade with outside customers. Some of the commercial relationships that have developed--such as the sale of fuels to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by the other three fuel-rich republics--have been one-sided and subject to shutdown in response to nonpayment or in attempts to gain economic and political leverage.

The five republics have several major problems in common. All remain in the economic, military, and political shadow of their giant neighbor to the north. In the mid-1990s, Russian policy makers, encouraged by a very vocal nationalist faction in the federation, speak openly of recapturing influence in the "near abroad"; Central Asia usually is the first region cited as an example. In the first two years of independence, the five republics remained in the ruble zone, their monetary activities restricted by the nonconvertibility of the old Soviet ruble that remained the currency of that grouping. In 1993 all but Tajikistan introduced new currencies with limited convertibility. Russia had attempted to keep Kazakstan and Uzbekistan in a new Russian ruble zone, but ruble distribution problems and harsh conversion conditions forced those republics to follow the independent course of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. The Tajikistani ruble introduced in 1995 remained closely connected with its Russian counterpart. In 1996 Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan established a new customs union and other economic ties with Russia and Belarus, hoping to gain selected advantages while avoiding large-scale concessions that would increase Russian influence.

The Soviet legacy includes an economic infrastructure in which all republics depend heavily on other republics for vital inputs. A complex Soviet-designed system of pipelines and electric cables connects the five republics. Pending completion of Turkmenistan's new line to Iran, only one railroad line leading out of Central Asia connects the region with a destination other than Russia (the one line goes only to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China). Heavy industry in all five republics also has depended heavily on local Russian skilled labor.

The Central Asian republics also suffer common geographic disadvantages. All are landlocked and located far from potential markets outside the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Middle East. Nations such as Azerbaijan and Afghanistan, through which goods must travel overland to reach Western markets, still are quite unstable, and others such as China and Russia are powerful neighbors with a history of taking advantage of weaker nations that need commercial favors. Kazakstan and Turkmenistan, both in need of a route to move oil and gas to Western customers, have been especially frustrated by Russia's failure to support new pipelines. The landlocked position also presents a national security obstacle.

Although the region is blessed with ample arable land, most of that land becomes useful only when irrigated. Large-scale irrigation, in turn, has taken a huge toll on the hydrological systems of the region--in the most obvious case, the system that feeds the fast-disappearing Aral Sea. Regional cooperation on the Aral Sea problem, recognized as one of the most serious environmental crises in the world, received much lip service and little action in the first half of the 1990s. By 1995 an estimated 36,000 square kilometers of the sea's bed had been exposed, and an estimated 3 million inhabitants of nearby Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakstan had developed chronic health problems associated with that process. In October 1995, a United Nations (UN)-sponsored regional conference produced the Nukus Declaration, which resulted in the promise of intensified joint efforts to stabilize the sea and a pledge of US$200 million from the UN and the World Bank for regional development and aid.

When independence was declared in 1991, none of the five republics had experienced an independence movement or had a corps of leaders who had considered how such a change might be managed. Five years after independence, in four of the states political leadership remains in the hands of the same individual as in the last years of the Soviet Union: Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakstan, Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan, Saparmyrat Niyazov in Turkmenistan, and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. President Imomali Rahmonov of Tajikistan was not president in 1991, but, like his cohorts, his roots are in his republic's pre-1992 political world. Political power in all five republics is based on clan and regional groupings that make national coalitions risky and fragile. Clan rivalries have played a particular role in the civil war of Tajikistan and in Akayev's difficulties in unifying Kyrgyzstan behind a reform program.

Although all the republics had adopted new constitutions by 1995, the three government branches prescribed by those documents are severely imbalanced in favor of the executive. In all five cases, the political opposition of the early 1990s has been virtually extinguished in the name of preserving stability and preventing the putative onset of Islamic politicization. Although the new constitutions of the republics specify independent judicial branches, the concept of due process has not been established consistently anywhere.

All five republics have suffered increasing rates of crime in the liberalized atmosphere of the postindependence years. Drug trafficking, official corruption, and white-collar crime have increased most noticeably. All republics lack the resources to equip and train qualified police and specialized forces, and their judicial systems are not sufficiently removed from their Soviet antecedents to deal equitably with new generations of criminals. Evaluation and quantification of crime in post-Soviet Central Asia have been hampered by changes in responsible agencies, by irregularities in reporting procedures, and by lack of control and responsiveness in law enforcement agencies, particularly in Tajikistan. Statistics for the years 1990 and 1994 from Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan show dramatic increases in every type of crime, although those from the other three republics, where record keeping is known to be substantially less comprehensive, show considerable drops in many categories. In 1995 and 1996, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan set up new, specialized police units to deal with economic and organized crime.


Located on the western slopes of the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan occupies one of the most rugged and topographically divided regions in the world. Possessing extremely convoluted frontiers, it borders Uzbekistan to the west, China to the east, Afghanistan to the south, and Kyrgyzstan to the north. Tajikistan is the smallest in area and third-largest in population of the Central Asian republics. Unlike the ethnically dominant groups of the other four republics, the Tajiks have a culture and a language based on Iranian rather than Turkic roots. Despite their differing cultural backgrounds, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks did not consider themselves separate until the Soviet Union's artificial demarcation of the republics in the 1920s. (Until 1929 the Autonomous Republic of Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan.)

The Soviet Union brought Tajikistan significant advancement in education, industry, and infrastructure compared with the primitive conditions of 1917. In the mid-1990s, however, the country remained the most backward of the Central Asian republics, partly because of specifically focused Soviet development policies and partly because of topographical factors that enormously complicate exploitation of existing resources.

In the Soviet system, the Tajikistani economy was designed to produce cotton, aluminum, and a few other mineral products, including uranium and gold. Waged across a large portion of the republic, the civil war has caused great and lasting damage to the national economy. In 1994 damage to industry was estimated at about US$12 billion. Production levels in all industries had dropped an estimated 60 percent in 1994 compared with 1990. Many Germans and Russians, a high percentage of the country's key technical personnel, fled the civil war. The rate of inflation was steep in 1992-93.

In 1996 Tajikistan's economy still was in desperate condition. It remains the least attractive of the former Soviet republics for foreign investment. Only the export of cotton and aluminum has brought significant profits. A joint cotton venture with the United Arab Emirates was scheduled to begin in mid-1996. In 1995 the Regar (Tursunzoda) aluminum plant produced 230,000 tons of primary aluminum, about half its capacity but enough to make aluminum the second-largest export product. As it was earlier in the 1990s, aluminum production has been limited by continued reliance on imported raw materials and energy. Tajikistani industry remains handicapped in general by the country's inability to pay foreign energy suppliers.

Some movement toward economic reform was seen in 1996, although the unreliability of performance statistics makes evaluation difficult. Prime minister Yahyo Azimov, who took office in February 1996, has stressed the need for quick privatization and assistance from the IMF and the World Bank. In early 1996, controls were lifted on bread prices, a move that led to riots in some cities but that was considered a sign of commitment to market reform. The Azimov government set a 1996 budget deficit cap of 6 percent of GDP. In mid-1996 the World Bank was considering a loan of US$50 million, but the IMF withheld aid pending improvement of foreign exchange and other conditions. The privatization target for the end of 1996 was 50 percent of total enterprises, after only 8 percent of the country's enterprises were privatized in the first four years of independence. The Economist Intelligence Unit forecast additional GDP reductions of 12.4 percent in 1996 and 10 percent in 1997.

In 1996 and 1997, Tajikistan attempted to join regional organizations that would improve its economic position. The customs union of Belarus, Kazakstan, Kyrgzstan, and Russia considered Tajikistan for membership, but the Central Asian Economic Union of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan refused Tajikistan's overtures.

Some improvements were made in 1995-96 in Tajikistan's woefully shabby infrastructure. The Daewoo firm of South Korea modernized the telephone system, and United States, German, and Turkish firms were scheduled to add new features. The Dushanbe Airport still needs modernization, although in the mid-1990s regular flights were established to Moscow, India, and some other points.

Especially in comparison with the stable regimes that have dominated the other republics since 1991, the political scene in Tajikistan has been unsettled from the day of independence onward. Throughout the 1990s, an old guard with roots in the Soviet era parried the efforts of various opposition groups to share or monopolize power. In 1992 a short-lived coalition government broke down, sending the country into a civil war that was won nominally when the old guard forces captured Dushanbe and named Imomali Rahmonov chief executive. But conflict persisted, based partly on the geographical and clan divisions of the country and partly on the political question of reform versus reaction. Between 1993 and 1996, fighting flared, mostly in limited engagements, in several regions of Tajikistan and across the border in Afghanistan. In 1993 a multinational CIS force, dominated by Russian units, entered the country with the primary mission of enforcing the southern border, across which opposition forces had received substantial support. In early 1994, the UN arranged a first round of peace talks, and five more rounds followed over the next two years. None of the talks led to an agreement on peace terms, however.

In 1996 Tajikistan's political situation remained as unstable as it had been for the previous three years. The Rahmonov regime was unable to defeat rebel forces or to compromise enough to reach a satisfactory agreement with them. As it had in the previous three years, Russia failed to bring the government and the opposition to the peace table. Meanwhile, continued instability provided Russia the pretext for maintaining substantial "peacekeeping" forces in a key region of the former Soviet Union. The situation has led some outsiders to doubt the sincerity of Russia's efforts to bring peace to the area.

In early June 1996, the civil war in Tajikistan intensified once again, and observers saw similarities between Russia's military activity there and its occupation of Chechnya. Russian air attacks on opposition villages in south-central Tajikistan contravened the latest three-month extension of the UN-sponsored cease-fire (originally signed in 1994), which had been set in May. In a new campaign apparently coordinated with Moscow, Tajikistani troops moved with Russian air support eastward into the country's narrow central corridor toward opposition strongholds. Meanwhile, in May the Rahmonov regime refused to reconvene UN-sponsored talks as scheduled, and the UN Observer Mission in Tajikistan (UNMOT) was refused access to the combat zone. In August 1996, opposition troops moved close to Dushanbe amid intensified fighting that ended yet another cease-fire agreement.

In the fall of 1996, the government's military position was unfavorable as rebel forces drove from Afghanistan into central and eastern Tajikistan. In December Rahmonov signed a peace agreement with Sayed Abdullo Nuri, leader of the opposition Islamic Rebirth Party. The agreement called for a National Reconciliation Council that would be a forum to negotiate the terms of a permanent peace. In the months that followed, the Rahmonov government negotiated with the United Tajikistan Opposition to reintegrate the political and military organizations of the two sides. Scattered fighting continued into the spring of 1997, however.

According to a Russian report in May 1996, the Tajikistani army was lacking 40 percent of its nominal officer cadre, and only 40 percent of those in service, many of them callups from the reserves, had a military education. The Tajikistani force was evaluated as inferior to its opposition in training and armament. Instances of troop mutiny reinforced that opinion, paralleling the situation in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In both Tajikistan and Afghanistan, Russian troops operated in a highly unstable civil war atmosphere, and the opposing sides were deeply divided within themselves.

As the civil war continued, the Rahmonov regime took steps to avoid internal sources of opposition. Although the new constitution approved in November 1994 contained substantial guarantees of human rights (also staples of all the Soviet-era constitutions), prescribed legislative and review functions for the legislature, and mandated an independent judiciary, in fact the country's governance amounted to one-man rule based on declarations of emergency executive powers extended from 1993 and 1994. The result has been imprisonment, exile, and assassination of opposition political figures and some foreign observers. Rahmonov won a decisive victory in the presidential election of 1994, with opposition only from a second hard-line politician of similar background, in what was generally labeled a rigged outcome. The unicameral legislature offers decisive majority support for Rahmonov's programs, and the judiciary is fully under the control of the president, who has the power to dismiss any judge. The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, which accounts for nearly 45 percent of the republic's territory, has disputed status and is a main stronghold of separatist opposition forces.

Tajikistan's foreign policy increasingly has sought the economic and military security of close relations with Russia. In Tajikistan, the Russian minority enjoys a more liberal set of privileges than it finds in any other Central Asian republic. For example, Russians are allowed dual citizenship and Russian remains an official language. In April 1996, Rahmonov appointed the Russian mayor of Dushanbe, Yuriy Ponosov, as first deputy prime minister, continuing the policy of granting high government positions to ethnic Russians. Despite favorable treatment of the Russian minority, Russians have fled Tajikistan steadily since 1992. In early 1996, only about 80,000 of the 500,000 Russians identified in the 1989 Soviet census remained. Most have complained that Russian government authorities did not afford them adequate aid or security in Tajikistan, leaving them no choice but to leave.

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

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