DUSHANBE, Tajikistan – A United Nations flight by Piper Beechcraft from Islamabad to this extremely remote Central Asian outpost, in the underbelly of the former Soviet Union, costs a staggering US$460 one way, plus $3 a kilogram for any excess luggage, including hand-carries. From anywhere else in Asia, there’s no other way to go. Tajik Air doesn’t give a damn about passengers, preferring to fly cargo, when and if there is any. Maybe New York headquarters should reconsider the market – at least in the airline business, the UN is a profitable operation.

Russian fighter pilots in shorts and sandals lizard-lounge on the airport’s tarmac in the shade of their Sukhois. No less than 20,000 Russian soldiers patrol the borders with Afghanistan. Stuck in a delightful retro-Soviet time warp, the streets of Dushanbe are practically deserted. Men sport a weird tendency for lousy haircuts. And after the Islamic straitjacket of Pakistan’s tribal areas, it’s great to see women interacting again in social life – and not clad in burqas. Rather, they parade in revealing slit dresses or in a mix of trashy Western-Chinese fashions. It’s even possible to spot a Cameron Diaz – better than the original – selling ice-cream in a grocery shop.

President Emomali Rakmanov may not be the epitome of the Central Asian post-apparatchik crook, like perennial candidates Islam Karimov from Uzbekistan and Saparmurat Niazov from Turkmenistan. But the economy is practically non-existent. According to the World Bank, 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. There’s no foreign investment to speak of. And in the year 2000 the country only received a pitiful $20 million in humanitarian aid from the UN.

A Norwegian engineer with experience in Sudan and Cambodia despairs in recalling that Tajikistan’s GNP has fallen by more than 30 percent since independence 10 years ago. No wonder everybody seems to be in the moneychanging business. The new currency, the somoni ($1=2.57 somonis), handsomely designed, may be all the rage, but everyone still prefers dollars. It’s even possible to play in a casino with small denomination greenbacks.

And Josef Stalin lives – through a statue in the central park, still showing the way to Soviet socialism. From the late 1920s to the Kruschev era, Dushanbe went by the name of Stalinabad. The Hotel Tajikistan – a glorious Soviet cement bloc – is still stuck in those times, but reverts to capitalism when suspicious-looking characters try to sell a “madam” or two by knocking on doors at 6 am. A great deal of loitering is performed on the tree-lined boulevards. Anyone who is not a moneychanger, loiterer, kiosk vendor or remotely Mafia-related is trying to earn a living as a traffic warden, stopping the few Volgas and quite a lot of Mercedes for bribes.

With no economy to speak of and practically nothing produced locally, except some colorful clothing and some even more colorful fruit and vegetables, Tajikistan can’t help but be another Chinese commercial satellite. All the Chinese junk in the bazaars seems to have descended just a while ago from the Karakoram Highway – or a branch of the New Silk Road via Osh, one of the great bazaar towns of all time, in Kyrgyzstan. The Tajiks soak it all in, listening to the very popular Andy, from Iran, and also George Michael and Ricky Martin. And they drink the dreadful local beer, watching Brazilian soap operas dubbed into Russian.

Tajikistan is a practical example of how Russia won the Great Game – and how it wants to keep the whole package at all costs. The fissure between the Russian universe and Islam is total. There is practically no Islam. On the other hand, there are a lot of NGOs. Everybody is of course more or less involved with Afghanistan – including the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs: $35 for a fabulous-looking accreditation, $25 for a double-entry visa, all these affairs related of course to trips to Afghanistan.

Considering what is at stake, the Russians couldn’t be but extremely touchy. The 201st Armored Division – at least 15,000 men, and now including an extra 3,000 paratroopers – is stationed in Dushanbe and responsible single-handedly for the phenomenal consumption of beer and vodka in the capital city. Another 20,000 Russians and Tajiks patrol the Tajik-Afghan border.

At the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Tajikistan (UNOCHA), Abdul Amiri says he’s been trying for more than a month to obtain authorization for nine NGOs to visit two islands near the Amu Darya river – the famous number 9 and number 13. But the Russians, stationed in this strategic stretch of the Tajik-Afghan border, keep on stalling. There are a few thousand Afghan civilians stranded on these islands, mixed with a few nomads and a number of military from Ahmadshah Masoud’s Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The other side of the river is Taliban-controlled. Masoud’s people travel to the islands by boat so the Taliban cannot find them and shell them. Trouble is, the civilians, caught in the cat-and-mouse game, are getting no provisions.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – protected by the Taliban and by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden – was nowhere to be seen in Tajikistan, at least during this summer. The IMU is the leading strategic threat to at least three Central Asian republics: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Everybody was expecting an IMU offensive this summer, starting in northern Afghanistan and spreading to the rich Ferghana Valley in Central Asia. Mysteriously, nothing happened.

The IMU, founded in 1998, is headed by commander Juma Namangani, a native of the Ferghana Valley who had to fight for the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Until recently, the IMU’s top item on the agenda was to exterminate Uzbek President Islam Karimov and turn the self-appointed Central Asian regional power into an Islamic state. Now, bolstered with recruits from Chechnya, Pakistan, Kashmir and other Central Asian republics, not to mention a substantial sprinkling of Arabs and Uighurs from Western China, the jihad has become pan-Central Asian.

The Russians became even more paranoid when Namangani proclaimed a new Central Asian party four months ago: the Hizb-I-Islami Turkestan (Islamic Party of Turkestan). The aim of this new organization is nothing less than to create an Islamic republic comprising the five former Soviet Central Asian republics, plus Xinjiang in China’s far west.

Namangani has certainly become a master on how to diversify his sources of support. To start with, he added a new twist to the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” (“What can a poor rural Tajik boy do, except to join an Islamic guerrilla force.”) But most of all, Namangani is supported by the ultra-hardcore Islamic parties and organizations operating inside Pakistan, by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and by Osama bin Laden himself, the man most wanted by the United States on charges of international terrorism.

Tajiks also insist that Russia tolerates the the IMU’s offensives because they badly want to force Karimov to have Russian troops stationed in Uzbekistan (for the moment, only Tajikistan accepts Russian troops in its territory). In addition, the IMU profits from the drug trade, smuggling Afghan heroin via Tajikistan into Russia and then onto Western Europe (that’s how its motley crew of fighters gets paid). And they can also count on the handsome favors of the powerful Uzbek community who fled to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, after the October Revolution in 1917.

Russia and the ex-Soviet republics have reacted to all this action, setting up a 1,500-strong counter-terrorist force based in Kyrgyzstan. Countering the jihad is the supreme objective of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the former Shanghai Five, as was stated at their most recent meeting in June. The Russians would love to do it entirely by themselves, with minimum Chinese input.

But that would be wishful thinking. Everybody is terribly afraid. From Washington’s point of view, their main obsession (Osama bin Laden) and the Taliban are bound to expand from northern Afghanistan to Central Asia. From Beijing’s point of view, any turbulence in Central Asia is enough to encourage the Uighus in Xinjiang, defined by the Communist Party as the main threat to the nation’s stability, even more than “separatist” Tibetans.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan’s relations with its suspicious neighbor Uzbekistan couldn’t be more dreadful: as everybody in the region well knows, the legendary Samarkand and Bukhara – now in Uzbekistan – are historically the Tajik’s great cities. The Uzbeks cannot forgive the Tajiks for their failure in preventing Namangani from setting up his training camp in the Tavildera Valley, near the Pamirs, in Tajikistan. Tensions among Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are reaching boiling point.

Olga, Natasha and Fatima are three very nice Tajik girls. They live and work in Dushanbe. All of them are English majors, and members of what would be the country’s bourgeoisie. They dream of leaving: if not to London, at least to Moscow. Dilorom, a hard worker and single mother, also proficient in English, is willing to leave at all costs. They make roughly $50 a month – a fortune in Tajikistan.

A Western or Asian entrepreneur would put it this way, “Tajikistan’s got everything goin’ for it: cool girls, lots of booze, splendid fruit and vegetables, decadent Soviet architecture, the spectacular mountainscape of the Pamirs. Come and enjoy the time of your life!”

If only it would be that simple. First, somebody must have a word with Juma Namangani. And then, somebody has to wake up the international donor and investment community from its torpor. It would be a cruel irony if this last somebody is Namangani himself.


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