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. …