Monday, March 16, 2009

Will the Economic Crisis Destabilize Tajikistan?:

Criminal networks and radicalism could quickly fill the void. In a recently released report widely cited by Western diplomats here, the International Crisis Group concluded that Tajikistan is at risk for massive social unrest and is no longer a "bulwark against the spread of extremism and violence from Afghanistan." Rather, it is a potential source for both.

Alarming statistics back up the report. The Tajik government reports that this year crime is up 6.5 percent (and that's probably a low-ball estimate), while, according to the IMF, remittances are already down by 24 percent. Almost none of the Tajik countryside receives electricity or water in the winter, while three-quarters of rural residents live in what the International Crisis Group characterized as "abject poverty." The report adds, "[H]unger is now spreading to the cities." The country's two biggest industries, cotton and aluminum, have tanked.

Not that long ago, Central Asia—all those opaque countries ending in -stan that used to be part of the Soviet Union—was diplomatic flyover country. Other than as a source of oil and the site of the odd U.S. military base, Central Asia has not registered as a priority for the security mandarins commanding U.S. foreign policy. This may soon have to change. This mostly Muslim region, marinated in oil, uranium, and a full periodic table of other important commodities, is in a position to undermine the Obama administration's emphatic aspirations for success in Afghanistan. From failing banks in Kazakhstan to angry and unemployed men loitering in the shadows in Tajik villages, the financial crisis threatens to disrupt Central Asia's fragile political and social stability.