Precarious Progress for US Ally Tajikistan ; the Muslim State Could Be Thrown Back into Disarray If Problems in Next-Door Afghanistan Spill Over

Article excerpt

Not far from here, at the heavily fortified Leningradsky Post, two dozen Tajik guards patrol the border around the clock. Perched in a high watchtower, they peer across the sluggish Pyandzh River, keeping an eye out for trouble floating over from the Afghan side - just like the Soviet and Russian troops before them.

"In our experience, bad things come from Afghanistan," says a Tajik officer who refused to give his name.

Those "bad things" - weapons, drugs, and Islamic militancy - contributed to Tajikistan's near destruction in the 1990s, in a brutal civil war that took up to 100,000 lives and nearly brought the Afghan-trained and -armed Islamic opposition to power. The tiny, mountainous country of 7 million at Asia's heart is still trying to live down its reputation as a "nearly failed state," and many experts remain concerned that one of America's few secular Muslim allies in the war on terror could be tipped back into chaos if it does not make swift progress on a daunting list of problems. These include war- shattered infrastructure, the worst poverty in the former Soviet Union (USSR), and a wave of corruption boosted by the growing flow of narcotics that passes through Tajikistan from Afghanistan to the West.

President Imomali Rakhmonov, who is credited with winning the civil war and restoring order, was reelected last November to a new seven-year term. But international organizations describe his rule as increasingly autocratic, and some worry that the harsh repression of dissidents, especially suspected Islamic militants, could generate fresh opposition. Human Rights Watch describes conditions in Tajikistan as "worsening," while Freedom House rates the country as "not free."

"There's been considerable stabilization here in the past few years, but real fragilities remain," says Igor Bock, deputy chief of the United Nations Development Program's permanent mission to Tajikistan. "The government has maybe two or three years to prove it can make positive changes."

About two-thirds of Tajiks live on $2 per day or less. Most rural people lack access to clean water, and much of the country suffers from daily power cuts - even in the capital, Dushanbe.

Tajikistan's economy grew by 7 percent last year, but experts warn that only a few people are benefiting so far. Almost 1 million Tajiks are working abroad; their remittances account for up to half of Tajikistan's official GDP.

The government is counting heavily on developing the country's vast hydroelectric potential, and some big Russian corporations appear interested in investing. Meanwhile, the growing electricity crisis is causing deep discontent. …