How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
As we drove beyond the concrete ruins of an old Soviet cement factory in Polygon, a tiny town in Tajikistan’s Rasht Valley, my Tajik taxi driver showed off his extensive knowledge of Moscow’s public transportation system. He told me about the best metro stops for transfers, how to shave kopecks off the fare, and his precise method for using the city’s buses in order to move more swiftly across the city.
He is not the only Tajik who feels so at ease navigating through Moscow. Since the end of the Tajik civil war in 1997, Tajikistan has sent an increasing number of migrants to Russia. Most of them are men, and they now number over a million, or around 50 percent of all of Tajikistan’s working-age males. These workers take odd jobs all over the country: some join the fishing crews off of the Kamchatka Peninsula; others sell food and knickknacks as street vendors in Moscow; most make their living in urban construction. It is hard to overstate the importance of the wages they send home. Indeed, Tajikistan is, as measured by share of GDP, the most remittance-dependent country in the world: at the equivalent of 47.5 percent of its economy in 2012. Between 1999 and 2013, this money helped lower Tajikistan’s poverty rate from 96 to 36 percent.
But now migration appears to be slowing. The cause is twofold: increasing fear of economic volatility in Russia, as the Russian economy stumbles beneath the weight of sanctions and falling oil prices, and stricter Russian immigration policies.
All of the conditions migrants look for—job prospects, earnings, and ease of travel—have worsened dramatically in Russia over the past year. Just as for Russian workers, there are fewer available jobs, and the real value of wages has fallen with the depreciating ruble. Migrants also now face a more daunting immigration process—including higher fees, longer waits, and Russian language, history, and law exams. And, making matters worse, as many as 400,000 Tajiks are barred from returning to Russia for up to ten years, having received reentry bans as a result of legal infractions or visa overstays.
For those who stay, work is hard to come by. Like my driver in Polygon, many become taxi drivers. The light employment that ferrying passengers provides—in Russian, as one driver described it to a friend, “podrabotat” (roughly, “earning a little extra”)—is preferable for now to the uncertainty in Russia. A taxi driver in Dushanbe told me that the money he earns covers little beyond the cost of his family’s meals. He often needs to borrow money, and any unforeseen expense would cause severe hardship. Still, he would rather survive here—where he is with his family and free to come and go without the harassment of Russian police—and wait to see what happens with the economy in Russia.
There are weighty consequences to this trend in Tajikistan. The clearest one is the economic decline in what was already the poorest of the former Soviet Republics. When I first arrived in Dushanbe in late October 2014, seven months after the first round of sanctions against Russia, Tajikistan’s currency, the somoni, was less than five to the dollar. There has since been further decline: it is now well over six to the dollar. Hardly any ATMs in Dushanbe dispense U.S. dollars, which were readily available when I arrived. When an official bank does release a batch, a crowd forms and the bills are soon snatched up and hoarded, which prevents them from circulating and further devalues the somoni. In mid-April, in the hopes of limiting currency speculation, the government shuttered nearly half of all private moneychangers in the country.
Most means of easing the situation in Tajikistan involve engaging Russia. The government has asked Russian immigration authorities to provide amnesties for some with reentry bans. There is also a chance that Tajikistan will soon join the Eurasian Economic Union, a European Union equivalent of sorts that came into being at the start of 2015 and currently includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Doing so would relieve Tajik migrants of visa fees and restrictions.
In the meantime, the return of husbands, brothers, and sons ends painful, protracted separations, but also potentially crowds women out of the workforce in Tajikistan. Although the predominantly male migration from Tajikistan has not necessarily altered gender roles in what has become an increasingly patriarchal country, it has allowed women to assume greater responsibilities. Negar Behzadi, a doctoral candidate in Development Geography at the University of Oxford conducting fieldwork on gender and informal economic practices in Tajikistan, told me, “In the absence of male migrants, some women do find spaces of freedom and engage with activities they would not have in the presence of their husbands.” A rural doctor whom I know—the only woman in her extended family to work outside of the home—is able to practice only because of her husband’s prolonged absence. Sometimes it is desperation that drives women to work, as in the case of women and their children who are abandoned by men for new families in Russia. The jobs women take on range from selling bread and baked goods in the bazaar, to working in unofficial coal mines. More men means fewer job opportunities for women, or at least complicates access to them by making it less acceptable for women to work outside of the home.
A few days ago, a young man commented to me, “Here, it’s six days of unemployment. And then one day of rest.”
But the most alarming side effect could be radicalization. Tajiks, the vast majority of whom are Sunni Muslims, may become increasingly vulnerable to recruitment by radical groups like the Islamic State (also called ISIS), which can offer money and an identity of sorts. As of mid-April, the Tajik Ministry of the Interior estimated that there are 144 Tajik fighters in Syria and Iraq, although exact numbers are unknown. Edward Lemon, who is researching the relationship between migration and radicalization among Tajik labor migrants in Moscow, has used social media to track 85 Tajik fighters in Iraq and Syria. He has found that nearly all of the radicalized Tajiks have spent time in Russia. In fact, most appear to have been first recruited by Chechens while working abroad as migrants. They may also be radicalized in Russia. Lemon wrote, "Migrants in building sites in Moscow have told me that they have been approached by south Caucasian recruiters for the Islamic State." This is in part due to vulnerability: Migrants are away from their families and often endure harsh living and working conditions. But access also plays a role. Chechen recruiters, for example, would be very conspicuous in Tajikistan.
The threat of ISIS recruitment, especially by fighters who have come back from Syria or Iraq, has certainly stirred fear. In December, Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s president, said that ISIS is “the plague of the new century and represents a threat for global security.” To prevent local radicalization, Tajik news shows run segments depicting the brutality that recruits endure in ISIS training camps—their message is that whatever money recruiters offer is not worth the terror. The government has stepped up arrests of Tajiks accused of planning to join ISIS abroad or of being members of various local radical organizations, such as Jamaat Ansarullah. Authorities are also clamping down on religious expression, targeting practices such as growing beards or wearing hijabs; parliament is currently considering a law that would prevent the registration of baby names deemed “alien to the local culture,” including Arabic ones. At least for now, though, Lemon believes that the in-country danger is “overblown,” as “Tajikistan seems to only be on the edge of [ISIS’] radar.” But it is on the radar.
Of course, the great majority of Tajiks are seduced not by jihad but by the pull of the money and the prospect, slim as it may have been, of upward mobility that Russia once promised. All over the country, even in the remotest villages, I see new roofs being built—a sign that Russia has afforded so many migrants the opportunity to slowly drag themselves and their families out of poverty. For many here, remittances have been a means of making ends meet, of paying health-care bills for children or repairing homes. But I have also heard exceptional stories, like that of Rustami Orifi, a migrant turned filmmaker who used his earnings as a construction worker to make a film that won an award at a Kazakh film festival, and more ordinary ones, like that of a young Tajik man who worked for a year in Moscow and has plans to open a chicken farm soon, although he is now waiting for the somoni to stabilize. But that door to the Tajik version of the Russian dream, so to speak, is closing for now.
The phrase “there is no work here” is repeated frequently, verbatim, and by almost everyone whose opinion I solicit, even in passing. A few days ago, a young man commented to me, “Here, it’s six days of unemployment. And then one day of rest.” He laughed, but I knew better than to ask him what he would be doing the next day.