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TAJIKISTAN: CITIZENS PONDER BLEAK FUTURE AMID HARSH WINTER

The harshest winter in decades is plunging Tajikistan into a socio-economic crisis, as officials find themselves squeezed in a tightening vice of tough choices. The country currently is grappling with an energy emergency, with some areas now left totally without electricity. Efforts to solve the crisis, however, could cause a disastrous spike in inflation in a country where over 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Temperatures in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, have hovered around minus-20 degrees Celsius over the past few weeks. The minus-22 reading recorded in Dushanbe on January 19 was the lowest recorded temperature in the city since 1982. The country’s antiquated infrastructure has not been able to cope with the cold, prompting drastic cuts in electricity.

In Dushanbe, residents still receive a couple of hours of power every day, but many report having no heating. The situation is far worse outside the capital. For example, electricity has been completely cut off to several districts of southern Khatlon Province, according to the Asia-Plus news agency. Schools have shut down and many businesses and light industrial enterprises have ceased operations. The deaths of several newborns in hospitals have been attributed to the combination of the cold and the lack of power. The crisis is such that officials decided on January 15 to divert a limited amount of electricity from the Tajik Aluminum Plant – one of the country’s main economic assets, and its largest single consumer of power – for civilian needs.

Compounding the crisis is the fact that the Nurek reservoir and dam complex, which is currently responsible for generating most of the country’s domestically produced electricity, is experiencing a low water level. As a result, according to the state power company Barq-i Tajik, several of the dam’s turbines are unable to function. Meanwhile, much needed supplies from neighboring states have dwindled. Despite a contractual obligation to supply 10 million kilowatt hours per day (kw/h), Uzbekistan in early January cut off electricity exports. At the same time, Turkmenistan is exporting just 3 million kw/h per day.

For many Tajiks, the power cuts have highlighted the lack of progress made by President Imomali Rahmon’s administration in implementing infrastructure development projects. Several power-generating dams are in various stages of construction. One, dubbed Sangtuda-1, actually began operating on January 20. But the facility’s expected generating capacity of 2.7 million kw/h per day won’t have much of an impact on alleviating the crisis. Dushanbe alone consumes an estimated 12 million kw/h per day.

Some local political analysts are quick to point out that a Russian state-controlled entity, Unified Energy Systems, controls a majority stake in Sangtuda’s operations, and thus Tajiks should not expect many immediate or even long-term benefits from the project. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Another important project, the Rogun Dam, is at a standstill after Tajik officials terminated a construction deal in August with the Russian aluminum giant RusAl. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Rahmon’s administration has vowed to press on with construction of Rogun, but so far the government has not found any new investors. According to some estimates, it will cost about $2 billion to complete Rogun, a sum that appears to be way beyond the means of Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest nation with a state budget that is about $614 million annually, according to a CIA estimate.

The prevailing mood in the country now seems as dark as the days are cold. "Tajikistan has been driven into the corner not only by nature, but also by geopolitics. No matter who our neighbors are -- unstable Afghanistan or stable Uzbekistan -- wherever you look, there is an impasse," said a commentary published by the Asia-Plus newspaper on January 17. "This winter has once again led one to understand that hindering internal and external factors are increasing doubts about their [projects’] implementation, and about our bright future."

Any effort to reduce Tajikistan’s dependence on outside energy sources risks inflicting an unbearable amount of pain on the population. Tajik Minister for Labor and Social Protection Shukurjon Zuhorov announced January 23 that over half the population lived in poverty, the Avesta news agency reported. The minister said that the cost of basic necessities was pegged at 216 somoni per month (about USD $62, while the average salary stood at only 157 somoni $44).

Given the already high economic stress level, there is little room for maneuver to make needed structural reforms. For instance, Tajikistan, working in conjunction with the World Bank, has pledged to raise electricity tariffs as part of a comprehensive effort to modernize the energy sector, and ensure steady power supplies. "The average electricity tariff in Tajikistan is still one of the lowest electricity tariffs in the world," the World Bank noted in a January 15 statement. Local media outlets have heightened anxiety with reports of a 40 percent increase in energy costs.

Some local observers say there is no obvious way Tajik authorities can fulfill the commitment to the World Bank without incurring the wrath of millions of citizens. Any drastic spike in the cost of basic commodities could set off an upward inflationary spiral that would be extremely hazardous to social stability. Even without the additional pressure exerted by the cold crisis, Tajik inflation was believed to be running at a double-digit rate, one of the highest in the former Soviet Union.

While there appears no easy way forward, the maintenance of the status quo is also unsustainable. The energy crisis is quickly causing debts to pile up. Already, some important economic sectors are on very unstable ground. The debts of cotton farmers, for example, reportedly ballooned to around $500 million in 2007.

Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe. Additional reporting was supplied by Kambiz Arman.

TAJIKISTAN: CITIZENS PONDER BLEAK FUTURE AMID HARSH WINTER

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