Tajikistan: The country that keeps trying
Patrick Gilsenan

You can’t be afraid to try and you can’t be afraid to fail was the message of the Tajikistan Ambassador to Washington, Abdujabbor Shirinov, during a lengthy interview with Central Asia Newswire to discuss his small, Central Asian nation’s history and current challenges.

“Tajikistan is a country in a transition period from a Soviet type of government and life to a market type. So, of course, we have a lot of questions, difficulties, and problems. With some we have a good result and some we don’t,” Shirinov said. “But we have to try to help this day be better than the day before.”

It’s an apt philosophy for the former Soviet republic whose multi-millennial history includes precious few years of self governance and whose recent leap into full sovereignty has been fraught with challenges.

Tajikistan is a tiny, landlocked, almost entirely mountainous country tucked into the southeast corner of Central Asia. To its north is Kyrgyzstan, to its south a 1,340 km border with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is to the west and China to the east.  Tajikistan spent much of its history as part of the vast Persian and Russian Turkistan empires and more recently a republic of the former Soviet Union.

Tajikistan, like the other five “Stans” now comprising Central Asia, gained its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country then immediately fell into a bloody civil war lasting from 1992 to 1997. The remnants of that war, says Shirinov, remain Tajikistan’s biggest challenge today.

“The civil war made a lot of damages and we lost a lot of lives,” he said. “There was damage to our economy and our social sector. Very difficult problems, we were very beaten. And all of these challenges and all of these difficulties we feel even today.”

Foremost among the difficulties in improving one of Central Asia’s lowest standards of living is Tajikistan’s weak economy. Cotton and aluminum have been Tajikistan’s traditional economic drivers and both have taken huge hits in the global recession. Cotton production has dropped from 1 million tons at its height to 350,000 tons in 2009, according to Shirinov, and a global plunge in aluminum prices have greatly affected a market that makes up 50-55 percent of the country’s exports. The global recession has also slashed the flow of remittances which once made up nearly half of the country’s GDP.

And despite a per capita GDP which has more than doubled over the last decade, the country still has a per capita GDP of US$670 and nearly half its population – 41 percent – live in poverty.  A national energy crisis resulting in blackouts and power rationing has also made survival that much more difficult for the country’s extreme rural poor.

But, says Shirinov, the country is making progress toward improving its economy and is a place ripe for foreign investment. A recent “200 Days of Reform” program has simplified the legal and administrative processes for opening and running a business in Tajikistan to a degree that the country moved up 12 slots on the World Bank’s 2010 Doing Business Report (now 152nd out of 183) and was named by the bank as one of the ten most improved countries for doing business.

Tajikistan also hopes to complete two major road projects this year which will cut ground travel from Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, to Afghanistan from eight to three hours and allow commercial trucks winter access to the mountainous north.

“A misconception is that Tajikistan is still a hot spot of instability. It is a very stable place. I would say more stable than some places in Europe. It’s good for investment and good for profits,” Shirinov said, adding that they still make some profit form aluminum exports and that cotton prices are expected to rise. “We have multinational (corporations) here and all our banks have foreign investment.”

Possibly the country’s biggest post civil-war difficulty, however, has been energy and Tajikistan’s inability to capitalize on its most valuable asset – water and the hydroelectric power it produces.

Ninety-three percent of Tajikistan is mountainous with three peaks above 7,000 meters. Locals call the country “the roof of the world.” And from those snow-covered peaks flow millions of gallons of water – roughly 60 percent of Central Asia’s water supply - through the world’s largest tallest hydroelectric dam, the Nurek Dam. For years, Tajikistan supplied Uzbekistan and other neighbors with hydroelectric power in spring and summer in exchange for energy imports in the winter. Recent regional squabbles over the use of the region’s limited water recourses, however, have cut off those connections leaving Tajikistan with declining revenues, an aging hydropower infrastructure and inability to meet its own energy needs during the country’s brutal winters. And the situation became even bleaker this month when a summit in Moscow designed to bring the regional parties together failed to yield a solution.

“These (energy) connections (with our neighbors) are destroyed. In the winter we have a hard time heating our homes … We still cannot find good solutions for this problem,” Shirinov said, adding that agreements will have to be reached with Tajikistan’s downstream neighbors. “The key for success for all Central Asian countries is regional cooperation. Good relations … mean more sustainable situations in economies.”

Though the situation is dire, Shirinov says, some positive steps are being taken. The Russian funded Sangtuda-1 hydropower dam came online in 2009 (though is in danger of being shut down due to  unpaid debts), and the partially constructed Sangtuda-2 dam has received an infusion of Iranian funding and is expected to provide power by the end of 2010. And, despite the objections of its neighbors, Tajikistan has renewed efforts to complete the long moth-balled, Soviet era Roghun Dam, which, if completed, would be the tallest dam in the world and potentially eliminate Tajikistan’s crushing energy deficit. The Tajiks spent $130 million on the dam last year and hope to spend the same in 2010 with the help of the sale of public shares in the project. Shirinov hopes the dam will begin producing a significant amount of electricity by 2013.

Another domestic challenge facing Tajikistan’s more than 7.3 million residents is the handling of human rights as the country shifts from a Soviet style system to a true Democratic Republic. According to most international accounts, Tajikistan continues to have a dismal record on human rights on nearly all fronts – a lack of freedom of speech and the press, a lack of free elections, threats and abuse by security forces and other violations.

In response to questions about Tajikistan’s human rights record, Shirinov says Tajiks have more rights than the West and other nation’s realize – including free elections, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. He added that Dushanbe has invited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the country’s February 28 parliamentary elections and that the country’s human rights record must be judged within the context of the challenges it faces.

“We have to consider (human rights) in connection to the situation in the region. We have to find a balance to prevent the worsening of (the effects of extremist groups). We are cautious because we have experienced very tough times and because of that we don’t want a repeat,” he said. “I think the situation (in Tajikistan) is very open.”

Shirinov stressed that his country is just beginning the process of self rule and can’t be judged by Western standards of democracy.

“There are a lot of kinds of understandings of democracy. It can’t be imported and taught in one or two years. It must be in the heart and learned step by step through years in a nation,” he said.

On the international front, Tajikistan continues to forge a strong social and trade relationship with Afghanistan including cooperative efforts between Afghan border troops and the Tajikistan Drug Control Agency to stop the flow of heroin and opium through Tajikistan and the construction in the last ten years of two bridges connecting the two countries.

And though Tajikistan’s relationship with Moscow has been a bit erratic over the last two years given Russia’s failure to adequately fund the Roghun Dam and its recent refusal to side with Tajikistan in regional water and energy disputes, Shirinov says the relationship with their former ruling nation remains strong.

“Russia is the biggest investor in our economy … They are a big ally,” he said.

Some, however, believe the strained relationship with Moscow is pushing Tajikistan to strengthen its relationship with Iran. The two countries share cultural and language ties, Iran is a major funder of one of the Tajikistan’s largest dams and Iran has invested tens of millions in Tajikistan’s major road projects. Dushanbe has also come out in support of Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

“It is in our hearts. It is good,” Shirinov said of the relationship between Tajikistan and Iran. “Historically, Tajikistan and Iran have a very ancient relationship. We (share) some poets, and some writers and history and we speak some of the same language … We have lots of things that connect us together.”

Shirinov added, however, that Dushanbe does not support the development of weapons of mass destruction. “We support an Iranian peaceful (nuclear) program, not the development of nuclear weapons.”

So whether the challenges facing this small, relatively new country are foreign or domestic, Shirinov says he and his countrymen will keep trying.

“The Tajik people are truly patriots. We believe we can make our country prosperous. We believe we can have good development,” he said. “We can really do it.”

Biography of Abdujabbor Shirinov
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentionary of the Republic of Tajikistan to the United States of America.

Abdujabbor Shirinov was born on June 20, 1953 in the Khatlon region of the Republic of Tajikistan. In 1974, he graduated from Tajik State National University with a specialty in mathematics.  Mr. Shirinov returned to Tajik State National University to obtain a degree in economics and graduated in 1999.

From 1974 until 1992, Mr. Abdujabbor Shirinov worked as a computer software programmer, eventually reaching the post of Head of the Department for designing automatic control systems in the data-processing center of Tajik State University.

During the six year period between 1992 and 1998, Mr. Shirinov went from chief engineer to the Director of the Settlement Department of the National Bank of the Republic of Tajikistan.

From 1998 to 2000, Shirinov worked as the First Deputy Chairman of the Executive Board of the Joint-Stock Commerce Agro-Industrial Investment Bank.

Between 2000 and 2006, Mr. Shirinov was fulfilling his duties as the First Deputy Chairman of the National Bank of Tajikistan. In 2006, Mr. Shirinov Chaired the Committee for State Financial Control of the Republic of Tajikistan.

From the end of 2006 until January 31, 2007, Mr. Shirinov was First Deputy Director of the Agency for State Finance Control and the Struggle Against Corruption.

On February 1, 2007, Mr. Shirinov was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentionary of the Republic of Tajikistan to the United States of America.

Mr. Shirinov speaks Persian, Russian and English fluently.  He is married and has five children.

Biography source: Embassy of Tajikistan