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Tajikistan: A New Vigor Is Born Of Despair

Dushanbe, Tajikistan; 26 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Usmonkul Miniev, an ethnic Uzbek from the Shahristan district of Tajikistan -- 250 kilometers from the capital Dushanbe -- drives his car once a week to a nearby town to the largest market in the valley. There he buys all kinds of goods including exotic imports like Pepsi Cola and Orbit sugar-free chewing gum.

When you drive on the mountain road that leads to Dushanbe you can see hundreds of improvised markets where you can buy not only local, but also foreign, products. Nobody there finds it strange anymore to see, for example, Miniev, an old man whose hair is as white as the snow on the Zarafshon mountain range, operating an improvised stand in such a market.

Miniev sells goods he has brought from Uroteppa only for dollars, Russian rubles or Uzbek currency. He told our correspondent, who offered Tajik rubles, he was very sorry but he could not accept currency which in a week might not be worth more than the paper it was printed on.

Economic reforms over the last five years have brought Tajikistan into an economic and social situation unique among the newly independent post-Soviet republics. Tajikistan has just suffered through a civil war. During the long years that Tajik politicians and their armed allies have been occupied fighting for power, the neglected ordinary people decided to build a new life on their own. This phenomenon could be called an uncontrolled plunge into a market economy.

Visitors to Tajikistan soon get the sense that economic reforms here spring up from below instead of being decreed from above, as in Russia for example.

The Tajik government has issued numerous ukases to support the Tajik ruble. They haven't had any real effect, because the market itself establishes the actual level of the currency. Meanwhile, few trades go through official exchanges, leaving different groups of corporate currency dealers free range for inside deals and manipulation.

Mercantile commerce is the main activity that helped the population survive during the civil war. The first small entrepreneurs came from outside the country, but then the Tajiks themselves began to revive their own heritage. They remembered that the first merchants in Central Asia, active during all the decades of the Silk Road, were the Sogdian, ancestors of the Tajiks.

So now you can find everywhere, from the Persian Gulf countries to India and Pakistan, from China to Poland and Bulgaria, these new Tajik trades people doing business. Little shuttle salesmen like Miniev form small groups, then associations and companies which gradually become influential parts of the economic process not only in Tajikistan, but in the other former Soviet republics of Central Asia as well.

Trade is still the main activity that sustains life in a republic where the population didn't receive any monthly pay, pensions or scholarships during 1995 and the first half of 1996, and where the median wage is six dollars per month. The Government Statistics Agency reports that 95 percent of retail activity in Tajikistan for the first half of 1997 was done in the unofficial market.

Oiisha Homidova, former member of the opposition party and researcher at the Foundation of the Tajik Language, says that she works in one roadside market that has the highest intellectual level in the world. To the left of her stand is a merchant with a doctorate in philosophy. The merchant on her right is a member of the Academy of Sciences. In the same market there is a holder of doctorate in history, legal rights and linguistics. Some of the market's customers come there to buy something just to help these distinguished people.

About a year ago a wave of traveling salesmen and small merchants began to pool resources to establish small companies to produce goods, and provide construction and transportation services. Some started commercial banks and investment funds. In the first three months of 1997 alone, the number of small and medium size businesses in the country increased by 22 percent. For example, there now are 370 construction companies in Tajikistan.

The owner of the Ayni District agricultural firm Nawruz, Subhon Rahimov, describes his own experience this way: "Today in Tajikistan businessmen who prefer to operate with clean hands come together and create their own associations. It is difficult, but I can disclose that the number of my partners already has tripled." He says that the entrepreneurs must pay not only legal taxes, but also bribes to the authorities. And to people carrying machine guns.

Rahimov says that transportation in Tajikistan triples the costs of goods. On the road from Hudjand to Dushanbe, for example, are numerous checkpoints with armed men who demand tribute from passersby. Those who refuse to pay invariably are "discovered" to be in possession of illegal drugs or munitions.

Tajiks traditionally are close to the soil. They resented the Soviet-established one-crop culture of cotton. When the post-communist government eventually got around to declaring 50,000 hectares of farmland available for those who wished to work the land for their own benefit and a small levy to the government, it was already too late. Determined farmers already had occupied 30,000 hectares.

In 1994, the government decided to legalize the situation after the fact. It recognized the squatter-occupied farmland and added 20,000 hectares of national property. The government is afraid to try further reform. Ninety-three percent of Tajikistan is mountainous. Farmland is as rare as gemstones. The potential for conflict is immense.

During the post-Soviet civil war, fearing hunger and economic collapse, people sowed crops even on the sides of the roads and on the steep mountainsides. In Tajikistan, a whole new generation of dekhkanes -- people of the land -- has been born. They may not have the status yet of Western farmers, but they celebrate their freedom from Soviet-style kolkhose, collective farms.

The quiet revolution came at the point when the population ceased to expect or hope for the government to make the reforms. Independent and creative behavior was born, not of slogans or government decrees, but as the result of war, typhus epidemics, hunger, poverty, anarchy and crime.

This is why Usmonkul Miniev, the small retailer near the Shahristan crossing, demands foreign currency rather than bills backed by his own government. And it's why he stands and sells Pepsi Cola, Orbit and what-have-you, hoping for better days to come for his children.

(Salimjon Aioubov is a broadcaster for RFE/RL's Tajik Broadcast Service. He wrote this report after a visit to his homeland.)