In terms of statistics, unless they are the rosy government sort, Tajikistan often appears to be on the edge of an abyss. But somehow the poorest country to emerge from the Soviet Union chugs on.
So a grim World Bank report out this week probably does not indicate imminent collapse. But it is unnerving to see that almost every macroeconomic indicator suggests trouble ahead. And Tajikistan’s latest predicament coincides with a push from Moscow to join Russia’s new Eurasian Economic Union.
Tajikistan’s economic dependence on Russia is, as economists have long warned, a liability—and not only because it gives Moscow enormous influence. “The possible spillover effect from the Russian slowdown onto the Tajikistan economy is estimated to be one of the largest in the [Europe and Central Asia] region: a 1 percentage point reduction in the growth of Russia’s GDP would reduce growth in Tajikistan by the same amount,” says the October 27 report, “Tajikistan: Moderated Growth, Heightened Risk.”
For starters, over a million Tajiks, or about one-half of working-age Tajik men, labor in Russia, usually in menial jobs. Their transfers are worth about half of Tajikistan’s GNP, making it the most remittance-dependent country in the world.
But as the Kremlin sacrifices Russia’s economy for its Ukraine policy, which has caused a new low in relations with the West, the resulting downturn is hurting the ruble and Tajikistan’s economy at large. An ailing ruble buys fewer dollars to send home.
Tired of seeing their countrymen return from Russia in body bags, sometimes ferociously disfigured, a concerned group in Tajikistan is taking their outrage online, petitioning presidents and parliaments in both countries to take action.
Hundreds of Tajik migrant laborers in Russia die each year, falling victim to dangerous working conditions and, some fear, bloodthirsty Russian nationalists. According to Tajikistan’s migration service, between January and August this year, over 600 Tajik nationals died in Russia: Of those, 67 were murdered and another 238 succumbed to disease; the rest were presumably accidents. Rights activists estimate that over a million Tajiks work in Russia.
Every few months, it seems, another brutal case prompts renewed attention, offering some macabre déjà vu.
Bakhtiyar Rasulov’s headless body was found in his burned-out taxicab near St. Petersburg on November 16. He had been stabbed repeatedly and his head stuffed into the trunk.
Congratulations Tajikistan! After erecting the world’s tallest flagpole and sewing the longest flag, you have earned another number-one spot this year by becoming the most remittance-dependent economy in the world.
Last year, officially, $2.3 billion came pouring into the country from Tajik laborers abroad. That was 31 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP, the World Bank said on December 1. Approximately a million Tajiks work abroad. Most are young men working in Russia, often on dangerous construction sites. Looking at villages empty of able-bodied men, some believe the absentees comprise roughly half the country’s potential work force.
Lesotho, Samoa, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan (number five at 21 percent) followed Tajikistan as the countries most dependent on remittances as a share of GDP, according to the ranking. View all data here.
The study only measures “officially recorded remittance flows,” which include bank wires and transfers through agencies like Western Union and Unistream. Real numbers are likely higher as some migrants carry wads of cash and goods home with them.
Over the last few years, Turkey has increasingly become a migration route for people from Asia and Africa who are trying to make it to the west. Many of these irregular migrants end up stuck in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul, stuck in a kind of limbo, unable to move onwards, unwilling to return to their politically and economically ravaged home countries. The National, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, has an interesting article up that takes a look at one part of Istanbul that has been dubbed "Somalia Street" because of the number of African migrants, many of the Somali, now living there. From the article:
When the muezzin's call for the dhuhr prayer rang out from the Katip Kasim Mosque in a rundown neighbourhood of Istanbul this week, dozens of men arrived. But it was no ordinary crowd that gathered midday in the mosque: about half of the men were Africans.
"Istanbul's Mogadishu" is the name Turkish newspapers call the area around the mosque in the Yenikapi district close to the Sea of Marmara on the European side of the Turkish metropolis. The street in front of the 17th-century mosque, Katip Kasim Camii Sokak, has been dubbed "Somalia Street", because the neighbourhood has become home for migrants from across Africa, many of whom do not have Turkish residence permits and face expulsion if arrested by the police.
Some have been here for years.
"I want to go to the United States," said Ali, 39, from Senegal, who only gave his first name. Like other Africans in the neighbourhood, he declined to be photographed because of fear of the police. Ali said he had come to Istanbul two years before and was earning money by selling perfume on the street in upscale and tourist parts of Istanbul.
"It is hard," he said. "But I live together with friends, so it becomes a little easier."
Finally, we have some good news for Central Asia’s poverty-stricken masses. Remittances are up in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, various sources confirm.
The National Bank of Kyrgyzstan reports that in the first five months of this year, remittances rose 32.6 percent over the same period in 2009 ($398.5 million versus $300.4 million). Most of the money came via banks in Russia and Kazakhstan.
In Tajikistan, in the first four months of 2010, wages sent into the country from workers abroad were up 24 percent over the same period in 2009, according to the UNDP’s senior economist for Europe and Central Asia, Ben Slay.
Slay calls “remittances the best – in many cases, the only – social safety net in Central Asia.”
His office publishes a variety of statistics measuring regional economic trends. The Tajikistan macroeconomic vulnerability database, for example, also demonstrates how the country's industrial output and remittances together took a negative dip throughout 2009, but have both registered positive growth since the beginning of 2010.