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Learning about Life under Dictatorship: Tajikistan’s Energy Problems

Written by Michael J.G. Cain, Professor of Political Science

If all goes well, residents of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, above, should get enough power to heat homes throughout the city, day and night. But much of the rest of the country will receive only between eight and twelve hours of electricity per day. Many rural towns will get none.
© Thanatonautii | Dream

Before I arrived in Tajikistan last fall, I knew what to expect in this remote, Central Asian state. After consulting with U.S. State Department officials in Washington, I knew that corrupt government remained, low economic development persisted, and widespread poverty gripped the country. Knowing this is important, but experiencing it up close and personal, can be shocking.

I was on the first leg of a one-year sabbatical research journey, working on an energy policy paper on this poor, mountainous country. I chose Tajikistan because its governance problems are much more profound than anything I experienced in my previous research on governments in Central and Southeast Europe, during their transitions from Communist rule. Despite protestations from my wife about safety (Tajikistan borders two other volatile states, Afghanistan and Pakistan), I knew I wanted to see things for myself.

The journey would allow me to gain a broader understanding of the obstacles facing fragile states. (Fragile states are sovereign governments that have difficulty providing internal security and jobs to most of its citizens.) And I was eager to share this knowledge with my students back at St. Mary’s College, many who go on to work for the U.S. government.

When I arrived in Dushanbe, the capital, I worried that I had bitten off more than I could chew. The first full day after my arrival in the capital, I did not have water for 30 hours. The third day we lost power for eight hours in my neighborhood (a relatively wealthy district of Dushanbe). The next week a colleague became very sick with food poisoning he contracted at a local restaurant I frequented. He commented later, “It comes with the territory.”

Several weeks after that incident, a colleague and researcher who was working in his apartment was asked for a bribe by a policeman. I was stopped on the street twice and asked for my papers. Any of this can happen on occasion in other parts of the world; what makes this different is that it is part of daily, everyday life in Dushanbe. You cannot escape the problems of corrupt government: unenforced regulations that place people at risk, poorly managed electricity and water systems, and arbitrary justice. Life is difficult in a dictatorship.

Tajikistan emerged as an independent state after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It faced a brutal civil war from 1992-1997, when approximately 80,000 people were killed with many more displaced or forced to flee the country. In 1997, a peace agreement was signed between the government, headed by President Emomalii Rahmon, and the United Tajik Opposition. The president has remained in power and has steadily strengthened his grip on government and eliminated any opposition to his autocratic rule.

Although Tajikistan has considerable resources, its resource base is poorly managed, contributing to one of the lowest levels of economic development in Central Asia. Dictatorship and low economic development often go hand-in-hand, and Tajikistan is no different. Half of the population earns less than two dollars per day with rural poverty approaching 70% of the population.

Being poor means that ordinary Tajik citizens face many daily challenges, but insufficient electricity or water can eliminate almost all of the privileges afforded to us in modern life. During the winters of 2008 and 2009, electricity to the capital ranged from a few hours a day to none at all in the countryside. Pipes froze and daily water provisions were difficult for families to collect. Those lucky enough to have diesel generators had some electricity, while most families used wood, coal, and blankets to stay warm. Daily life regressed to the 19th century.

This year, if all goes well, the capital will probably get enough power to heat apartments and flats throughout the city, day and night. But much of the rest of the country will receive only between eight and twelve hours of electricity per day; many rural towns will get little or none.

My research shows that lack of money is not the cause of problems with the energy sector. Most people pay their electricity bills. It is the lawless autocratic government that diverts electricity to subsidize major industries within the country, such as the aluminum and cotton companies. They provide valuable exports that help line the pockets of powerful politicians.

Not enough electricity is produced to meet demand. The need for additional funds to invest in energy projects to provide additional electricity is crucial for future development, but it is unlikely that the government will be able to attract foreign capital. President Rahmon, like other regional leaders in Central Asia, uses patronage associated with state-controlled resources to co-opt rivals and generate opportunities to increase the wealth of his ruling class. The electricity sector has proven to be a crucial resource for generating profits in other industries, while keeping citizens relatively satisfied with their (meager) provision of energy. Provide people with small amounts of electricity at low prices, use electricity in domestic industries to generate profits for elites, and postpone reforms as long as possible. It may not be a sustainable strategy for the power sector, but it has been a workable political strategy for many Central Asian autocrats.

However, this game cannot go on indefinitely in Tajikistan. President Rahmon will soon be caught between a rock and a hard place: he cannot continue to extract resources from the electricity sector while keeping electricity prices low without sacrificing the long-term sustainability of the sector. Without additional foreign investment, it is unlikely he can keep the electrical system fully operational or provide sufficient amounts of electricity to the Tajik people. The government is eroding the electricity system by taking too much out of it, without putting enough back in, so that the future integrity of the system is at risk with more cold winters for many families.

After a month in Tajikistan, I learned a great deal about life under a dictatorship. Daily life was challenging. I felt grateful that I could return to a country with laws regarding these issues. My experience there reinforced the importance of good governance and the rule of law in providing a strong economy. Tajik citizens deserve better.

Michael Cain is on leave studying energy issues in China at the University of Macau. The research for this article was supported in part by a fellowship from IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board) with funds provided by the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.