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Central Asia

In the shadow of Afghanistan

by Hannelore Börgel

In depth

Central Asian construction workers in Russia: The men often feed more than 12 family members from their monthly wage of approximately $ 800

Central Asian construction workers in Russia: The men often feed more than 12 family members from their monthly wage of approximately $ 800

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with a total population of 60 million, now represent the geostrategic region of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan depend on transfers from migrant workers; the other countries have resources such as gas, oil and gold. While the international community has mostly focused its attention on neighbouring Afghanistan, the precarious socio-­economic situation of the people in Central Asia is threatening the political stability of the entire region. Poverty and hardship are creating a breeding ground for Islamist radicalism and violence motivated by ethnic divisions. By Hannelore Börgel

The mechanic from Tajikistan earned $ 800 per month in St. Petersburg, of which he sent $ 600 home to his family of twelve every month. They spent the money on consumption goods and family parties, leaving nothing for savings. The man came home for his father’s funeral, but the family did not have enough money for his return trip to St. Petersburg, so he now works as a day labourer along a village main road in his home country. He can make 60 to 80 somonis (€ 10 to € 13) per day repairing motor vehicles. He is not the only one offering such services.

In 2009, after the financial crisis reached Russia and Kazakhstan, many Tajik migrant workers returned home. They now work predominantly in agriculture, some merely in their home gardens.

According to the chairman of a Mahalla – a traditional neighbourhood social welfare organisation from the Soviet era – at most 20 % of the homecomers manage to start successful small businesses or build houses in their countries of origin. Almost all of them dream of returning to Russia as quickly as possible.

However, not all of them find work there. A former Soviet soldier of Tajik des­cent has already been in Moscow twice. The first time he went in vain and couldn’t find any work. The second time, he worked for six months, but in the end his wages were not paid.

The man, who was stationed in Latvia as a soldier during Soviet times, has a sick wife and five children to feed. To pay for his journey back to Moscow, the family sold livestock, hoping to buy new animals with the money earned in Russia. Instead, they have now amassed debts and struggle to live on what their garden produces. Nevertheless, the father of the family wants to try a third time. He says, only Moscow will offer a way out of poverty.

Bureaucracy and corruption in Ta­jikistan make the road to self-employment and financial independence difficult for homecomers. Only those with a licence may work as taxi drivers. In 2010, the annual licence fee cost the equivalent of € 48, the annual lease was € 31 (with another € 14 per month to be paid to the owner of the company). A Tajik taxi driver recently earned $ 400 per month working as a foreman on a building site in Russia. He is now planning to return there to support his family of 30.

Struggle to survive

Poorly educated young adults are lingering about in the centre of a village in the Tajik province of Khatlon. They dream of emigrating. They have no idea what it means to have to struggle along as an unskilled worker in Moscow or Leningrad – as people here still call St. Petersburg.

Widowed women’s fate is especially harsh. They seldom inherit anything, and only very few have an education. As a consequence, they mostly depend on the charity of their relatives and neighbours. Many families cannot afford to send their children to secondary school.

Young women aged twenty are con­sidered old. Daughters get married – or are forced to marry – as early as possible. Some react by committing suicide. The economic crisis has aggravated this cultural problem. Domestic violence is also on the rise. In the villages, everyone is fighting for their own survival.

There were once flourishing kolkhoz (collective farms) in Khatlon, say the village residents; now poverty reigns. Former tractor drivers are among the poorest, and they now struggle along as unskilled workers at the markets, carrying around loads on their back for one Euro a day.

The country had twenty years to move on from the division of labour that was in place among Soviet republics – a cleverly devised barter system. Five years were wasted during the 1990s in a civil war. Afterwards, the unemployed migrated to the richer neighbouring countries, and the education system degenerated.

Around a million people, almost half of the Tajik population who are able to work, work abroad. Transfers dropped by 35 % during the financial crisis in 2009. Sometimes up to 30 relatives live on the earnings of a single migrant, whose income must cover the costs of family celebrations and bride prices as well as food and drink.

Most have not learnt to save money. Only the former kolkhoz leaders, people in management positions and the educated coped with the upheavals. Those who have no access to land, who did not pay attention when the land was “allocated”, are among what are considered “vulnerable” households today. In some districts, up to 40 % of the households depend on food aid.

People with contact to the president’s family do not suffer from want. It is well known that state-owned corporations are exploited by ruling clans. International organisations have made these mechanisms the subject of confidential investigations, and election observers are sent in at voting time. But that’s all that ever happens.

Similar situation in Kyrgyzstan

It is a similar situation in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Here, the people have twice driven a president from office: in April 2010, there were revolts against rising prices and corruption within the Bakiyev government, and during the “Tulip Revolution” back in 2005, they removed President Akayev, who had ruled the country since 1990, from power. He was accused of nepotism, corruption and an authoritarian style of governing. However, Akayev was initially considered to be a bearer of hope for the Central Asian region. In a refreshing manner, he had stood out against the authoritarian leadership of his colleagues in neighbouring countries.

Even the steadily growing civil society in the 1990s could not prevent the country from drifting into autocracy. Traditional clan structures which survived the Soviet era play a dominant role in politics today. During the Soviet regime, the communist party managed to suppress the clan structures and downplay the north/south differences in Kyrgyzstan, but after the radical political and economic upheavals, these issues came to the fore once more. They are now part of the country’s deeply rooted problems.

In June 2010, houses that belonged to Uzbek business people in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in Southern Kyrgyzstan were systematically set on fire. In total 2900 houses were burnt down, though some of them belonged to Kyrgyz people. The international community initially assumed the violence was sparked by ethnic disputes between Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents. The reasons, however, are complex and include competition for access to land and resources as well as socio-economic considerations in general. To some extent, the burnt down houses were located in places where shopping centres and high-rise buildings were being planned.

Ethnic differences were manipulated. Brutal murders were committed. Young adults from remote villages were roped in to commit the crimes of violence for ­money. Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents alike later expressed shock at the extent of the violence. A number of them refused to turn against one another, defending their streets and villages together against the perpetrators of violence. They had, after all, lived peacefully together for centuries. An international Inquiry Report on the reasons for the violence was finalised in May, but it was not published by the ­Kyrgyz government yet.

In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan has a new constitution. It is the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia in which the power of the president has been ­restricted. Some, however, doubt the constitution will succeed in uniting the country and allow all citizens in this multi-ethnic society to participate in political and economic life.

Dangerously neglected region

Foreign policy and development cooperation, both bilaterally and regionally, are called for in Central Asia. For too long, attention has focussed almost exclusively on Afghanistan; even Pakistan moved out of focus. Socio-economic development throughout the entire region has been brutally neglected.

Foreign policy and development strategies have to take account of the whole region at once. Otherwise, one country’s problems will simply be transferred to its neighbours. In view of the developments in the Arab world, it is crucial that the region stay on the radar. Apart from in countries with abundant raw materials like ­Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, tension is already rising; in some places, there is ­already unrest. The people’s precarious ­social situation is the greatest threat to ­political stability. Schools, vocational training and job creation are the cornerstones of economic stability in the individual countries.

In places where the economic situ­ation is wretched, warlords and Islamist groups have an easy job recruiting young men, while in regions where there has been an economic upturn, fewer people will take up arms as mercenaries.

In Pakistan too – primarily at local level – there are forces which resist Islamist radicalisation. This is a country where big German development cooperation projects are still held in fond memory. Since development assistance was cut back due to political reasons in the 1990s, the people have been asking: “Where are you? We have nothing to do with the Taliban; come back!”

Development measures are no substitute for national governments’ responsibility. In Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is not enough to pass laws and announce poverty reduction programmes – they also have to be implemented consistently and accompanied by international monitoring.

When impunity is the norm and criminal structures of trafficking drugs, arms and human beings are covered up, little can be achieved at local level. Therefore, programmes must be accompanied by political dialogue. Undiscerning relations with countries which are not committed to the sociopolitical development of their people are counterproductive and put the political stability of the entire region at risk. The developments in the Arab world should serve as a warning. The West has turned a blind eye for too long there too.