Tajikistan embraces alternatives to war

The Tajik people went at each other for five years in a civil war that killed 60,000, and then they came up for air and decided they would prefer not to create another Afghanistan.

So the fighting stopped.

That is the story of post-Soviet Tajikistan, of a Central Asian country that borders Afghanistan, suffers from many of the same ills, and fears it may share the fate of its neighbor.

A coalition government that encompassed all the contending enemies was formed in the mid-1990s. Brazen corruption flourished. Poverty deepened and now reigns supreme. The countryside has been floored by three years of drought. A million people risk starvation this winter without aid, proportionately just as many as in Afghanistan. But the rural byways and city street corners have been cleared of hoods with Kalashnikovs.

Dr. Turdyali Khajayev hails from the region of Rogun, where the Soviet Union once planned to build one of the world's largest hydroelectric dams. Construction started but was never completed. Huge apartment blocks stand deserted. The place is an ugly monument to big dreams that failed.

Yesterday, Khajayev came to Dushanbe, where life has picked up a bit the past two years, to visit his son. Tajiks don't have big dreams anymore, he said, just little dreams of a life together without guns. They'll suffer nearly anything else, if they can keep that.

'Nothing good comes of war'

"People understand that nothing good comes of war," he said. "Look at the past 25 years in Afghanistan. Nothing good."

Khajayev was standing in the Central Park of Culture and Rest, doffing his hat before a monument to the man whose name once graced both the main avenue running alongside and the park itself: Vladimir I. Lenin. Yesterday was the 84th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. This was once a day when the park was so crammed with people you couldn't make your way through, when orchestras played and couples danced.

Yesterday, 50 members of the Communist Party laid flowers at the monument at 7:30 a.m., so as not to make a scene, and then Khajayev, 60, stopped by at lunchtime in a fit of nostalgia.

"Life was good," he said. "People had jobs, intellectuals could study, there was culture - and in people's minds all this was connected to Lenin."

In 1990, the last full year of the regime that Lenin founded, people here rioted over rumors that Armenians fleeing persecution in Azerbaijan would be given preference for new apartments. Today, abandoned buildings are filled with squatters, beggars young and old patrol the streets, there are no new apartments, and no one's raising a voice about it.

"There's no gas, no light, no pay, no money," said a souvenir photographer in the park. "But there are no automatics [guns] now, either."

He was exaggerating. Dushanbe is ahead of the rest of the country. The proceeds of corruption, gun-running and heroin smuggling have to be spent somewhere. A few people here do have money. The chaikhonas, or teahouses, have reopened. Stores are stocked. The park flowers are trimmed. Beautiful new buses from Shanghai run up and down the avenues.

Living without money

Elsewhere, life is far grimmer.

The civil war, followed by the drought, compounded by the cotton plantation economy built by the Soviets, has ruined the countryside. Forty percent of Tajikistan's budget used to come from Moscow, and now that's gone. Agricultural production is 55 percent of what it was a decade ago, according to Ardag Maghdessian, head of the World Food Program office here. Cotton production is down from 1 million tons a year to 300,000. Food production has been cut in half.

"Social services?" Meghdessian said. "Psssssht - crumbled."

A typical pension is $2 a month.

More and more, he said, people depend solely on what they can plant for themselves. He calls it the "Africanization" of Tajikistan.

Somehow, said Nuriddin Karshiboyev, who runs the Independent Press Association here, Tajiks have simply learned to live without money.

Nevertheless, 1 million people, out of a population of 6 million, will not have enough to eat this winter without help. The World Food Program is hoping to ship in 60,000 tons of flour in the first six months of next year.

"We put out a call," Meghdessian said, "and again the U.S. came to our help."

The United States has pledged 35,000 tons of flour, up from 25,000 tons this year. The United States is the largest food donor in both Tajikistan and Afghanistan - and the events of Sept. 11 haven't changed that.

Reliance on U.S.

In fact, Tajikistan has benefited from the world's attention these past two months and the sure knowledge that the United States and the Northern Alliance together will keep the Taliban away from its borders. Karshiboyev calculates that the 1,200 foreign journalists who have passed through Tajikistan have spent an amount equivalent to the budget of a mid-sized government ministry.

But it is unlikely that much of that will reach the countryside. Stephane Nicolas, director of the Tajik office of a French aid organization called ACTED, said that people working on the cotton farms are among the most impoverished, even though cotton is still Tajikistan's biggest export.

None of the earnings come back to them. Moreover, all available irrigation is diverted to the cotton, so that people's private food plots have gone dry in the drought. Most of the workers live in virtual bondage to the companies that arose from the former Soviet collective farms.

ACTED is trying to stimulate the rural economy with a microcredit program for people who want to try to grow crops for sale. But that's not the kind of program that will see them through the upcoming winter.

Desire for peace reigns

On the face of things, it would seem like a recipe for unrest and a probable return to violence.

People here, though, have had enough of that.

"Tajiks are saying, 'Just preserve me from the fighting, and I'll be OK,'" said Karshiboyev.

Yesterday, Dushanbe was spiffed up for a visit by the president of Turkey. Policemen, many of whom used to be gunmen in one gang or another during the civil war, lined the square that boasts a towering statue of Sumani, the 10th-century king who has replaced Lenin as the country's figurehead and inspiration.

Two of them spotted a couple of strollers going by who didn't look local. "Hello," one called out in English, flashing a mouthful of gold teeth. There were handshakes all around. Then, in Russian, he explained that his partner had a toothache, and it was too bad because it was his birthday, and he didn't have any money to buy a bottle of vodka, for his birthday, of course, and for the toothache, too, there was no money, no money at all, and wasn't that too bad?

A supervisor strolled over just then and the little scheme melted away. The thirsty cops beat a retreat. The supervisor talked about the days when big Communist celebrations used to be held on this square, days long gone when life was secure, when the government looked after everyone, and when you knew that the rain would fall.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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