The Sick Man of Central Asia

Reason‘s December Special IssueThis year marks the 30th anniversary the fall of the Soviet Union. This is part of an ongoing investigation into the global legacy that this evil empire left behind. We want to make sure that there are no further tragedies. Not forgetting the terrible effects of communism is not easy.

Tajikistan was the worst-performing country among all those that have emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index Index, it is ranked 149th of the 180 countries. It is also worse than all former Soviet republics except Turkmenistan. The country has the highest level of poverty among the former Soviet republics. A full 27 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP), is due to remittances from Tajik migrants who work mostly in Russia. Its GDP per capita for 2021 (810) ranks 179th of the 195 countries that the International Monetary Fund holds data.

What is the reason Tajikistan is so poor? Because it is landlocked, importing and exporting can be more costly and more susceptible to disruptions in supply chains. The civil war which followed the fall of the USSR pitted incumbent Soviet power holders against their militias and an alliance of liberal reformers and anti-Soviet Islamists and ethnic minorities. It resulted in the deaths of tens and thousands and forced the displacement of over 1,000,000 Tajiks.

Geography and history are only two factors that explain much. Tajikistan’s mineral wealth is largely untapped, and the mountains are perfect for ecotourism. This has helped Nepal become one of the most rapidly-growing countries in the world.

Because Tajikistan has been ruled over by an unelected despot, it is Central Asia’s sickest country. He and his family have benefited at the expense millions of their poorer counterparts. Emomali Rahmon has been Tajikistan’s official president since 1994 and “Leader of the Nation”—a lifetime appointment that provides him with immunity from prosecution—since 2015. He is the king in every way.

Rahmon, like most despots has a strong grip over all aspects of his country. This includes media, business, and the practice of faith. He has many relatives in power. His son Rustam, the mayor of Dushanbe is his brother, while one of his nephews holds the National Bank of Tajikistan’s key position.

Rahmon’s ruling system has proved to be unsustainable, not only in terms of Tajiks’ rights but also the country’s economic health. The Economist found that a state-owned aluminum refining operation overseen by the Rahmon family has been routing hundreds of millions of dollars annually to a shell company in the British Virgin Islands.

Although Tajikistan welcomes foreign investment, with its open arms and generous terms of exchange, few investors have taken up the offer. The 2020 U.S. State Department investment climate statement states that “bureaucratic financial obstacles, widespread corruption, a dysfunctional banking system, non-transparent fiscal system and numerous business inspections severely hinder investors.”