Tajikistan: In Search of the Yeti
Dushanbe is not a real city. It isn’t a real capital and Tajikistan is not a real country. The northern neighbour of Afghanistan is a failure with a flag, shiny passports and a gang of savvy criminals that calls itself a government. This buffer between the empires fell apart a long time ago. The city has leafy boulevards laid out in an almost utopian socialist grid. The streets are quiet but on balmy Asian nights the streets come alive with drug mega-barons racing their SUVs, blaring out rap music and tossing a few coins at the impoverished police officers — teenagers in uniform — if anybody gets in their way. These boulevards are a Soviet mirage, a Potemkin city which was initially named after a dictator — Stalinabad. It became Dushanbe in 1961 as part of Khruschev’s de-Stalinisation.
Dushanbe is a hodge-podge of dirt tracks, sodden sewage holes, tiny whitewashed homes with corrugated-iron roofs. It swarms with under-fives, their veiled mothers, jobless dads, chickens and a nocturnal orchestra of wild dogs. Dushanbe is a slum for more than 650,000 people and the capital of a country where 70 per cent live in abject rural poverty. Tajikistan has soaring birth-rates, rising illiteracy, fraudulent elections, de-urbanisation and a 1,200km border with Afghanistan.
Rakhmatillo Zoirov has vacant pale eyes. His slacks are fraying. He lives in a dilapidated, garbage-strewn row of flats overlooking a desolate motorway. Repairmen have been absent since the fall of communism and children play gangsters in courtyards of broken glass. No one takes schooling here seriously. Zoirov is the only opposition politician publically to criticise the dictatorial leader Emomali Rakhmon.
“We have a corrupt authoritarian regime.” Zoirov’s voice sounds dulled, sensing his cause is lost. “More than 50 per cent of the labour force has fled the country for work in Russia, the countryside is sliding back in time and this regime has no answers about how to tackle chronic unemployment, collapsed public services and a flood of drugs money.”
His office is in a dusty apartment adorned with an old map of Tajikistan. A placard displaying Europe’s starry flag is pinned to the chipped paintwork on the wall. His organisation, the 12,000-member Social Democratic Party, is on Western life-support. “This economic situation cannot hold for more than three years. But the peasants are so passive.” I ask about the corrosive penury of his fellow citizens — Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. “Poverty is this regime’s policy. If people are poor and the enterprising leave for Russia, this country is easier to control.”
I walk along the quiet concrete ring road, trying to find a car to take me to the offices of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). Popular and enterprising, the IRP would be the government if there were free elections. I pass a beggar in a burqa, a one-eyed man renting out some scales for a few coins, smoking street urchins and mating stray dogs. Grassy gardens laid by keen Russian hands are overgrown, hiding needles and loitering teenage boys picking up fag ends. I hailed a passing car that has suspension problems and no wing-mirrors.
Hamid drives his Soviet-era rust-bucket towards the IRP office, skirting the freshly- laid gardens that encircle the golden-domed, marbled-walled presidential edifice. He asks me if I trust in God. “I decided to go to the mosque with my friends this year. The young people do this. Many, many of us. The imams help. Teach us. The government just steals.”
We pass poster after poster. President Rakhmon wearing a worker’s cap is pointing forward like Lenin. He is the children’s friend like Stalin. The regime thinks it has the answer: a gigantic dam built by financial contributions from all citizens. The state is demanding that everybody buy shares, paid out of monthly salaries which average £40. Reports circulate of money being deducted from bank accounts, people being turned away from schools, hospitals, any government institution, without the necessary proof that they have paid up.
A senior Western diplomat says: “Raising money from your own population for a project that could theoretically offer a solution to chronic energy problems is fine. Tajikistan has great potential for hydro-electricity, but you need an officially recognised body for this money to go to. We don’t know where it’s going. Civil servants were told that to keep their jobs they had to contribute bigger loans. They couldn’t afford them. So they turned to deeper corruption, making everything worse.”
Outside the modest HQ of the IRP, three tightly veiled girls are milling about the door, but my driver has no time for sensitivity. “I’ll wait here and blast out some loud pop. They’ll love that.” A sickly, bald, very short man opens the door and clasps my hand. “Peace be with you brother.” I am unsure if he is a recovering heroin addict or cancerous. He has the eyes of someone who believes himself saved. “The chief of the political council is upstairs. Let me take you.”
We pass a large hall converted into a mosque. The floor is carpeted in scores of colourful rugs and it smells of feet. Khikmatullo Saifullozoda, the IRP leader, is what you would call “a people person”. Charming and with the glare of conviction, his eyes lock on to mine in his drab, spartan office. Continue reading, standpointmag.co.uk