The Washington Diplomat / August 2003
By Larry Luxner
Most Americans can barely pronounce the name of his country, let alone find it on a world map. But after 9/11 and the war in neighboring Afghanistan, tiny Tajikistan is more important than ever to policy-makers in Washington.
Khamrokhon Zaripov, Tajikistan's ambassador to the United States, says that before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "nobody knew anything about Central Asia."
Few people knew, for example, that Tajikistan had the lowest per-capita income of any of the 15 former Soviet republics upon independence in 1991. Or that within a year, Taijikistan's secular government became embroiled in a brutal civil war with Islamic conservatives which lasted until 1997.
Or that Tajikistan is the only Islamic country in the world that has since established a coalition government with those very same Islamic fundamentalists.
"Unfortunately, the world largely ignored this experiment, the success of which could have had profound implications for the way the Western world reacts to resurgent political Islam elsewhere," according to a recent article in Foreign Affairs.
Zaripov said Tajikistan deliberately chose "democracy, human rights and freedom of the press" over totalitarianism, and is therefore more attractive to potential foreign investors — despite the massive war damages which devastated his little country.
"The consequences of the civil war were very severe. We had $7 billion in damages, and approximately 40% of our GDP was lost," he said, noting that the economy didn't begin growing again until 1996. "Over the last three years, we have had an average of 10% growth annually, and in the first four months of 2003, growth of 13%."
Nevertheless, the Iowa-sized country is still the poorest in Central Asia. Its current GDP is only 38% of what it was in 1990, and more than two-thirds of its six million inhabitants live on less than $2 a day.
It is also predominantly Muslim, with small Christian, Jewish and other minorities. Zaripov said that around 10,000 Tajiks live in the United States, most of them Jews who emigrated during the civil war and now reside in New York borough of Queens, where they flourish as doctors, attorneys, insurance agents and software engineers.
The 53-year-old diplomat — interviewed at his residence over coffee, pastries and pilov, a traditional Tajik lamb-and-rice dish — was born in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. A longtime member of the Communist Party, he rose through the ranks of Soviet bureaucracy until Tajik independence in 1991, when he joined the new country's Foreign Ministry. In 1996, Zaripov became Tajikistan's ambassador to Austria, Switzerland and Hungary — a post he held until being reassigned to Washington last year.
"Ten years ago," he said, "I left the Party and am now a member of the National Democratic People's Party of Tajikistan," which has 70% of the seats in Tajikistan's 130-seat Parliament.
In late June, the country's citizens voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to change the Tajik constitution and allow President Emomali Rahmonov to remain up to 14 more years in power. Officials said that more than 93% of voters backed the proposal, and that turnout at the country's 2,800 polling stations exceeded 96%.
"We are in a better position than the other countries in the region. We have two Islamic parties in our Parliament, and we have absolutely no problem with Islamic extremists," he said. "Extremism has disappeared. Tajikistan is now the safest place in the region. You can visit anywhere in our country without any trouble."
Zaripov, who has a 22-year-old son, Siayvush, and a 20-year-old daughter, Rikhshonka, lives in an apartment building next to the Watergate complex. He often walks to the Tajik Embassy, located in an office building at 17th and K Street; a new embassy will soon open on New Hampshire Avenue, as soon as local zoning issues are resolved.
In the last two months, Zaripov's embassy has issued 200 or so tourist visas to Americans, whom he says are finally starting to discover his country.
"We have very good relations with the United States. We were allied with the U.S. against the Taliban," he said. "Last December, President Rahmonov visited Washington and met with Bush, Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld."
Zaripov added: "We have a 1,500-kilometer border with Afghanistan, and before 9/11, we suffered from Taliban extremists. After the war there, the situation has completely changed, and all those threats have disappeared."
In the last 10 years, the United States has budgeted approximately $490 million to fund assistance programs in Tajikistan, plus $73 million worth of surplus Pentagon funds and privately donated humanitarian commodities. The biggest chunk of the $141.5 million budgeted for financial aid to Tajikistan in fiscal 2002 is being spent on humanitarian assistance ($75.6 million) and security and law enforcement ($21.5 million), with the remainder going towards democracy programs social services, market reform and community development.
In addition, more than 1,000 Tajik citizens have traveled to the United States for educational and professional exchange programs since 1993 — mainly to universities in Colorado and Nebraska.
Since 1987, Dushanbe and Boulder, Colorado, have been sister cities. In 1989, Dushanbe presented its counterpart with a traditional Tajik tea house which has since become one of downtown Boulder's main tourist attractions.
As a gesture of thanks, the citizens of Boulder are raising $660,000 to build a restaurant and cybercafé along a main boulevard in downtown Dushanbe. The cybercafé, complete with 18 computer workstations, will feature a contemporary Colorado architectural design and is scheduled for completion by October 2004.
Yet when asked Zaripov about economic relations with Moscow, the ambassador siimply handed us a book entitled "The Piratization of Russia" by Marshall I. Goldman — which seems to sum up the ambassador's views.
"In general, our relations with Russia are good, especially in the political and military sphere," he said, noting that Russian-led peacekeeping troops remain posted throughout the country. "But the level of economic cooperation is not satisfactory for Tajikistan. We really don't know why the Russians are so reluctant in the economic field."
Even so, Tajikistan's ties to Russia are excellent when compared to its relationship with neighboring Uzbekistan, with which the Tajiks have had constant problems.
"In the past 10 years, we have had some misunderstandings with Uzbekistan, mostly because of activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). This terrorist organization, together with the Islamic Tajik opposition, fought against our government during the civil war in Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997. Unfortunately at that time, the IMU was not recognized by the world community as a terrorist group.
"In 1997, after the signing of a peace agreement, they fled to Afghanistan and joined the Taliban, continuing to destabilize Central Asia. Only during the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was the IMU recognized as a terrorist organization and significantly weakened," he said. "With the disappearance of the IMU and other well-known regional terrorist groups, our relations with Uzbekistan significantly improved. However, problems still arise from time to time."
Unlike Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and a few other oil-producing countries in the region, Tajikistan's proven reserves come to just 12 million barrels. State petroleum entity Tajikneftegaz produces an average of just 350 barrels a day — down from 1,311 barrels a decade ago. Its natural gas and coal reserves don't look too promising either.
Where Tajikistan shows real potential is in hydroelectric power. The country is 93% mountains, and it accounts for 55% of Central Asia's fresh water supply. Zaripov says that despite its small size, Tajikistan ranks second only to Russia among the former Soviet republics — and eighth in the world — in production of cheap hydroelectric power.
"Tajikistan offers lots of potential for investment," he said. "Three years ago, we began constructing Rogunsk, a huge, 3.6-gigawatt hydroelectric dam, in order to export power to Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. Rogunsk will be the 15th-largest hydroelectric plant in the world. About 40% of it is finished, and we'll need $1.2 billion to finish it."
Tajikistan also has promising deposits of gold, silver and aluminum; it now produces 350,000 tons of aluminum a year and has the capacity to produce much more, said Zaripov, if only the investment dollars were available.
But Tajikistan's economic success depends largely on political stability in Central Asia. The U.S.-led war against Iraq didn't much affect Tajikistan, which he said enjoys good relations with both Israel and the Arab world — particularly Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In looking for a model to follow, Tajikistan still casts a wary eye toward its larger neighbors in the region.
"Iraq is too far away, but Afghanistan concerns us. If we don't keep the Afghan situation in focus, the extremists might come back," warned Zaripov. "Regarding Iran, we have cultural and historical similarities, but politically, we have different views. Iran is ruled by Islamic clerics, and during our civil war, some groups of extremists wanted to do the same in Tajikistan. But the majority of our people want a secular, democratic society."