When Flimsy States Don't Fail

The Sources of Staying Power in Central Asia

Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmon poses for photographers during his inauguration ceremony in Dushanbe, November 16, 2013. (Courtesy Reuters)

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are regularly listed among the world’s weak states. In 2012, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranked Uzbekistan, out of 178 countries, the fifth most corrupt in the world; Tajikistan was the 16th most corrupt. The same year, the Fund for Peace’s State Failure Index put both countries among its 50 weakest states. And, like many countries in this category, they are often described as sitting on the verge of state failure. In the 1990s, Tajikistan did collapse: a brutal civil war after the dissolution of the Soviet Union killed 50,000 Tajiks and displaced 800,000 more. Uzbekistan did not collapse. Instead, it constructed one of the largest state security apparatuses in post-Soviet Eurasia. Since then, both states have survived on their own terms, despite regular predictions of imminent collapse. It might seem like a mystery why some weak states, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, hang on while others fail, but in Eurasia, the state’s ability to manage and manipulate competition over local resources to the benefit of the government and its security apparatus has been key.

In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the local resources in question were cash crops, such as cotton and grain. These crops constitute “immobile capital,” since they cannot be extracted, moved, or sold without government involvement; bales of cotton or loads of grain are simply too large and too heavy to harvest and sell in secret. Land-owning elites thus face a fundamental problem: how to generate and divert illicit profits from the sale of these crops into their pockets. So they have had to seek out political patrons, which in turn has promoted corruption, favoritism, and competition among them.

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