CyberChaikhana’s Tajikistan chapter: “Central Asian Sisyphus”

Photograph by Flickr user bucaorg (CC-usage).
Photograph by Flickr user bucaorg (CC-usage).

We’ve previously published an earlier phase of the Tajikistan chapter rough draft, but that was over a year ago. Since then, Tajikistan’s gone through a parliamentary election and the latest phase of the Roghun saga. The chapter’s basic message hasn’t been changed: the people have Tajikistan have manifold reasons to despair but also to persevere, while their government struggles to follow its own better angels — or succumb to its devils.

Sisyphus“, by the way, is ancient Greek legend concerning a man cursed to forever push a boulder up the side of a mountain. Ever time the summit seems within reach, the boulder rolls back down the mountain. Ben and I thought this was an apt metaphor for the struggles of Tajikistan, for it captured the way in which mountainous geography and the existential struggle to survive have come to define the nation since the end of its civil war.

Central Asian Sisyphus

As anyone familiar with the country knows all too well, Tajikistan is beset by a swarm of problems both within and without her control.  The reasons to despair are manifold, as neweurasia’s Vadim recounts in this downbeat post:

State of denial—Tajikistan ranked 117th out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI) for 2007.  Our people are dying more often than others in the former Soviet Republics: the death rate is 26.4 per every 1,000 citizens and life expectancy is barely 55 years.  By comparison, the average European lives almost 17 years longer.

We live the worst lives of all the ex-Soviet countries.  But if you watch Tajik television, you will see another picture: Tajikistan is flourishing and Tajiks are the happiest people in the world.

Amonullo Goibov, the secretary of our National Coordinating Council for HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria Prevention, claims that “93.7% of deaths in Tajikistan are caused by non-economic factors”.  In other words, our low standard of living is not the main cause of deaths.

But just look at the statistics and you will see that all these diseases are caused by economic factors!  Everyone in the world knows there is a direct connection between a nation’s health and its economics.  People die because they eat bad food, live in cold apartments, and work in terrible conditions.


A year after Vadim wrote the above post, Tajikistan not only dropped to the 124th rank out of 179 countries on the HDI, but proceeded to freeze to death: the winter of 2008 was the country’s worst in half a century, with temperatures dropping faster than its HDI rank to -20ºC.  The mountain rivers that turn Tajikistan’s hydropower station turbines and provide potable water froze over, leaving millions without any means to warm themselves or cook.

Begging for infrastructure—This time the beggar was an old man. The young women with their babies stayed home; it is far too cold to venture out for even those whose only means of eating is provided by the generosity of strangers.

His cap and beard and torn thin coat were his only protection from the biting cold. He stood because he could not bear to sit on the frozen ground. His feet moved up and down, each in its turn pleading for relief from the pain his thin shoes could not keep away. His outstretched hand trembled with shivers, his other hand clutching at the neck of his coat to keep the killing cold out. For the pittance I put in that outstretched hand he wished me the blessings of Allah.

Will he survive? Will Tajikistan?  We use the term “infrastructure” so clinically. We neglect to understand that sometimes, in some places, it is the means of life and death. What infrastructure Tajikistan has left is being crushed, and its people are suffering and dying.

John Musarra

With the aid of the international community, the people of Tajikistan persevered—only to be slammed again, this time by famine in the spring, again needing more international aid.  Yet, international aid is itself one of the many problems: in the next post, Vadim worries that Tajikistan’s cycle of dependency has been slowly grinding down the country’s dignity, sustainability, and sovereignty.

Buy a Tajik a fish, feed him for a day… Today, the farmers could not protect autumn’s harvest from the recent severe, abnormal cold.  Furthermore, regular people lost their fruit gardens, while according to official statistics, Tajikistan had lost a large amount of arable land.  Considering that more than 93% of our country is mountainous, any loss is substantial.

We already buy one loaf of nan bread for two Somonis; that’s almost $0.60. Just last week it cost one Somoni, while one year ago it cost merely 20 Dirhams!  Yet, when faced with such staggering inflation, what do we Tajiks do?  We blame our neighbors—the Uzbeks who don’t give us gas, the Kyrgyz who don’t give us electricity, the Afghans who use our electricity, etc.

What about ourselves?  When will we understand that only we can change our situation?  Otherwise, we will live in such terrible conditions forever.

I am not against humanitarian aid, but aid cannot continue forever.  And yet we just sit and wait to be saved every crisis.  Tajiks, by their nature, are the kind of people who go to see a doctor only when they already have one foot in the grave.  They behave similarly with other problems—always at the last minute, when it’s too late.


Changing their situation is precisely what the government of Tajikistan is now attempting to do.  The constant threat of the cold is a lethal absurdity in a country awash with rivers and the potential to produce, according to, 300 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. Consider: as of 2010, Tajikistan only produces 16.5 billion kilowatt hours and must import electricity from its neighbors.

Determined to close the shortfall once and for all, Dushanbe has been pressing forward with construction of the Roghun Dam, one of history’s most daring hydropower projects.  If completed, Roghun would not only be the world’s highest dam, but it could increase Tajikistan’s economic and political clout in the region, as this blogger discusses:

The power of water—Because we hear about Roghun all the time here—it is trumpeted on banners festooning the main streets of Dushanbe, the president harangues passers-by about it from huge “L.A. Story“-style (or is it “1984″) video screens—it can be easy to forget that that rest of the world knows next to nothing about this dam which, according to the authorities, can change Tajikistan’s destiny.

Unfortunately for Tajikistan, its water resources are difficult to harness as they require the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to build hydropower stations.  Doubly unfortunate is that what Tajikistan has in water resources, it lacks in other energy resources.  Uzbekistan in particular has tried to use this energy disparity against Tajikistan’s government by alternately threatening to and actually cutting off natural gas supplies to the country, as the majority of the natural gas used in Tajikistan comes from Turkmenistan and must transit Uzbekistan via a pipeline to reach the country.

This is where Roghun Dam comes in.  Construction of the dam fulfills two strategic goals for Tajikistan’s current government: 1) become more energy self-sufficient and 2) obtain some leverage against Uzbekistan, for an operational Roghun would allow the Tajik government to significantly reduce the flow of river water to Uzbekistan, if it so chose.


Friejose alludes to how Dushanbe’s dreams of cascading electricity has been a process fraught with difficulties. Originally a Soviet project, construction of the Roghun dam has been repeatedly stalled, first by the Soviet Union’s collapse, then by Tajikistan’s subsequent civil war, and most recently by an argument between the government and a Russian firm charged with finishing the job that resulted in the cancellation of their contract.  At the start of 2010, it was unclear how a country as impoverished as Tajikistan could handle the 3 billion USD price tag.  But then the government embarked upon a bold Soviet-style solution.

The people’s dam—On 5 January 2010, President Rahmon called upon his people to each make a financial contribution to the project. He emphasized that every family should buy stocks in the dam. His speech was broadcast by all state media.

It marked the beginning of a massive pressure campaign. The country’s leadership has been using various methods, including the tried and true, such as brainwashing using television. Day and night, state media broadcast images of ordinary people “overjoyed” by their purchases. Yet they look grim and sound like they are reading a prepared text. Pensioners obediently enunciate memorized sentences, asking the rest of the population to follow their example and allocate parts of their salaries towards the construction project or buy stocks. Religious figures have been preaching that it is the duty of every faithful Muslim to help his fatherland, so everyone must invest in the dam.

Some media have reported that there is a certain list of Tajik organizations with mandatory donation sums assigned to each of their names. Experts believe it will negatively affect businesses, particularly the banking sector, the internet, and mobile communications. On 11 January 2010, a number of students from the capital city’s universities attended a press conference at the Ministry of Education during which they complained that their professors are giving them “Incomplete” marks until they purchase stocks. The Minister of Education replied that “the purchase of stocks is voluntary” and that he would look into the matter.

Indeed, officials on all levels have been foaming at the mouth at press conferences pronouncing the absolute freedom of citizens not to buy stocks or donate. However, the entire population, they say, has experienced a surge of patriotism and is willingly giving all it can despite the crisis. Time will tell.


Buy for your country (or else!) It is billed as the biggest hydropower scheme in Central Asia, supplying reliable electricity for its people and generating invaluable income for the country. It is symbolic of what the Copenhagen Climate Summit is trying to achieve, a reliable sustainable energy supply with minimal carbon emissions.  You would think that the whole world would want a share.

Our man “DD” turns up late in the office.  His brother has an exam at the agricultural university before the winter break. However, to sit the exam, DD’s brother had to produce a 100 Somoni (23 USD) share certificate in the Roghun dam. The country is in a vice of Soviet-style patriot privatization appeal, based loosely on the slogan, “Buy for Your Country”, the subtext of which reads “or else!!”.

President Rahmon appears on frequent television appeals, broadcast on the capital’s three imposing street screens.  Auspiciously perched in front of the Tajik flag, he calls upon the viewers’ sense of national identity, common pride, and guilt. The tirade of propaganda is intermittently interrupted by pictures of old ladies buying shares ten times the amount of their monthly pension, queues of people proudly waving their shares outside the Opera Ballet, and guidance on how many shares you are expected to buy.  Teacher, doctor, nurse, drug runner—no one is excluded. The marketing is exclusive and exhaustive. One organization handed over a mandatory 5000 Somoni contribution for fear of closure. One morning I woke to an incoming text: it read, “Have YOU bought your shares in Rogun yet?”

The Roghun dam itself will take another five years to complete, wipe out 12 villages, and deplete the country’s debt ridden economy of any free finance. The British and American governments have contributed, but unsurprisingly there is limited foreign private financing, indicative of the lack of trust in the government. As a consequence, the Tajik people are subjected to an unregulated fear tax in addition to their flat rate 39% salary tax. What’s the next marketing weapon, emptying wallets on the street or automatic withdrawals from personal bank accounts?

The bitter pill is the redundant folly that stands empty over crushed homes, namely, the People’s Palace.  This extravagant building, which is sensitively pictured on the back of the share certificate, cost 300 million USD to build. It provides a constant reminder of those who have and those who don’t. If only it could be transported 100 km upstream and placed in the Roghun river valley.


The Sovietisms don’t just stop up in the mountains.  The 2010 parliamentary elections, which according to neweurasia’s Alpharabius had an unprecedented number of seats up for grabs and viable opposition candidates to fill them, were subject to what many critics inside and outside of Tajikistan view as widespread vote tampering by the ruling party.

In the next post, the blogger Ekspeditsya, who believes the election results were fraudulent, meditates upon the government’s possible motives.  She considers whether Rahmon et al are not just greedily seeking power, but may perhaps see themselves as fighting to save Tajikistan:

The fate of their country… As of 4 March, results from Tajikistan’s parliamentary elections show the People’s Democratic Party winning 54 seats in the 63-seat lower chamber. Other parties, namely, the Islamic Revival Party (IRP), the Communist Party, the Agrarian Party, and the Economic Development Party, won two seats each.  Depending on whom you believe, this outcome is either the vindication of the long-sighted platform put forward by the pro-presidential party or the outcome of systemic fraud.

Pretending for a moment that Rahmon is driven by something other than megalomania, greed, and an unquenchable thirst for power, what else would explain this desire to remain so utterly unchallenged?  Perhaps his regime has come to understand that its model for the country’s future economic prosperity, which appeared predicated almost entirely on the success of the Roghun hydropower dam, requires absolute control and supremacy.

It is true that Rahmon’s government will need total control over all levers of power to get away with squeezing the population as hard as it is doing to raise the money needed to build Roghun.  This will require a Soviet-style combination of ceaseless propaganda and strong-arming. And there is no room for even the smallest hint of dissent in this scenario.

Cynicism apart, the publicity drive does appear to have been successful and will ensure that the anger that should be brimming over will be tempered for some time to come.  Rahmon may have been successful in ramming home the anodyne but effective rhetoric of sustainable development, stability, and energy independence.


Yet, regardless of whether Tajikistan’s desperation is being used as a cynical pretext or not, the government does appear to be using the opportunity to silence opposition to its policies.  The independent press in particular has come under a lot of pressure, as the next post, by neweurasia’s Botur, explores:

The price tag of truth—As of last week, the government wants to charge a fee for providing information to news organizations and the public.  The fee has been set at ten cents per page or ten USD per 100 pages.  Consider that the average salary in Tajikistan is 70 USD per month, not to mention that there are barely two dozen functioning newspapers and news agencies, all of whom are strapped for cash.

In developed countries there do exist fees for particular government services and processing. However, there are no restrictions to public access of the kind of information that should be readily and regularly available to anyone—like, for example, the spreadsheet of public shares in the Roghun project.

In the United States there is even a little something called the “Freedom of Information Act” (FOI) that enshrines this right, especially for journalists. The new law in Tajikistan seems to be the precise opposite of FOI. I believe it’s been designed to create a “safety zone” for the Tajik government to operate with impunity from its own people by making information prohibitively expensive for journalists. This will keep the population under-informed.

The decree shamelessly defies the core principles of democracy.  This is absolutely unacceptable and harmful for a country that has chosen the democratic path to development and which seriously needs to improve transparency, public access to information, and media coverage for its population to achieve its goals.

Information is the lifeblood of democracy, which is why the Tajik government should immediately repeal this decree.  Right now we’re seeing a government essentially saying to its people, “Don’t ask questions, just bring the money”.


The same blogger fears the extent to which Tajikistan’s future may become mixed with that of its leading political personality:

In the Kingdom of Rahmonistan—Like the girl who got away, I suppose my vote will now always be what could have been.  Let’s face it: it seems like our nation still believes that elections will neither be free nor transparent and no deputies in the parliament will be courageous or capable enough to bring about changes to structure and quality of governing bodies in society.  Yet, it is hard to blame them since everyone understands that no true democracy could allow one person to stay in power almost 20 years and control both the legislative and judicial branches.

Living in Tajikistan is like living under a shah whose family can do anything their hearts desire. The results of this “kingdom” are evident: the country is lagging behind in development, the people are poor and officials have turned into robbers and beggars of foreign donors. And what about our transcendent president?  The truth of human nature is that even the noblest and finest person in the world will become arrogant and selfish if allowed total power.  Total power corrupts any person.


Meanwhile, sparks are beginning to fly as the electricity continues to run dry.  neweurasia’s blogger Dushanbe is recording how serious conflict may be brewing between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan:

Roghunarok in the making? Tajikistan has rejected the Uzbek proposal to suspend building the Roghun hydropower plant until independent expertise determines its possible impact on the environment and water distribution in the region.

The Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev sent a letter to his Tajik counterpart last week, asking for independent international research into the Roghun project.  According to Mirziyoev, the dam will damage the fragile environmental balance of the region and decrease water flow to the downstream countries. He wrote that if Tajikistan does not stop building the dam, Uzbekistan reserves the right to appeal to the international community, which he believes will fully support the Uzbek position.

In a reply, the Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov says his country will not change its plan to build the plant. He adds that they believe the new reservoir will help both countries to save and use regional water resources more effectively.  According to Oqilov, his country called upon its neighbors to participate in a Roghun consortium under the auspices of the United Nations two years ago, but Uzbekistan failed to respond, either to the invitation then or the new one now.

Uzbekistan is afraid that with the Roghun dam, Tajikistan will gain a crucial pressure tool.  Specifically, Uzbekistan fears that the dam could damage its vital cotton industry, which depends on water from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

So, Roghun is becoming an odd symbol of conflict between two countries with ancient roots of friendship and good will.  What I worry about is if the anger between the countries’ elites eventually spills over to the everyday people.  How much longer before Uzbeks fear that Tajiks want them to be poor and Tajiks fear that Uzbeks want them to die of thirst?


Not long after this post was published, neweurasia’s Alpharabius reported a skirmish between Tajik and Uzbek border guards.  Only time will tell if the situation will indeed blow up or if reconciliation can be achieved.

So far we’ve been looking at posts that paint a very grim picture and which have also been highly critical of the Tajik government.  To conclude, we should also highlight the country’s strengths, which these two neweurasia bloggers believe are located in the Tajik people themselves, who, like the Sisyphus of ancient Greek legend, never relent in the face of fate:

More permanent than the mountains… Compared to the slow and steady lifestyle we had in Tajikistan, life flows fast here in the United States.  Demanding university studies, working several jobs to pay for the high cost of it, and raising kids, all at the same time while trying to enjoy our stay in this beautiful country.  But whenever the hustle and bustle calms, usually on weekend evenings, we realize how much we miss our family, friends, hometown, and country. My wife makes a hot tea and we just sit and talk about our life back in Tajikistan, especially all the things we unfortunately don’t have anymore since coming here, like our digestively challenging osh with lamb meat and fat, our bizarre bazaars, crowded and colorful wedding parties, uncomplicated by pleasant people, gorgeous nature, and so many historical places.  But there is one thing that we especially miss.

Most of all, it’s not having the warm and wonderful company of our big and loud family, relatives, and friends right near us.  In Tajikistan, most people live close to their family members and relatives, often within walking distance, and make good friends with most of their neighbors thirty houses up and down the street they live in.  It’s quite different in America, as most people choose to work and live far away from their families and communities where they grew up and they tend to make friendships with people who share similar interests, not necessarily with their neighbors next door.

In Tajikistan, however, close connectedness is based on the ties of circumstance, not interests, since we might not have many things in common with our loved ones.  It’s a stronger bond than what the Americans have and that’s why when you ask Tajiks what helps them persevere in the face of so much economic hardship, limited opportunity, and restricted freedom, they answer more often than not, “My family, relatives, and friends.”  For example, my mother always says to me, “Of course, I want to come visit you someday and see interesting places in America, but I won’t stay there more than a month. There will probably be someone whom we know who has his son or daughter getting married next month or a friend will invite us to a party of her newborn grandchild. Otherwise, no one will come to ours.”

Funny, but it is the truth.  The reality is that we Tajiks are a very social people: we care more about what our friends and community think of us than what we think of ourselves, much less what we really want to do with our lives.  It’s a problem—it doesn’t matter if the Tajik boat is sinking; at least we are all in it together, and perhaps this is at the root of our nation’s desperations—but perhaps it’s also a strength, for as the Tajik proverbs says, “Mountains won’t move, but people will meet (and need) each other.”


The future is within us, because even if it is true that Tajikistan had a terrible start—plunging into a devastating civil war, and, apart from water for hydropower and irrigation, lacking viable natural resources to export—we are emerging in solidarity, strengthened by suffering.  The trick is not to stop at what has already been achieved.

I believe Tajikistan’s main resource is its people. I believe Tajiks have an unbelievably competitive and progressive nature and, given the right economical and political conditions, they will undoubtedly prosper as a nation. I say that because I lived in a city that was devastated by war and I saw how it was rebuilt in a mere two years by the very people who lived there. Back then these people had virtually nothing to start their lives (their houses were burned down and vandalized), they only had a hope that tomorrow will be a better day than today and they were the only ones who could make it so.

Tajik Boy

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Christopher Schwartz is NewEurasia's Editor in Chief.

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