Tajikistan and Tajiks

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The Tajiks are the most prominent indigenous non-Turkic population in Central Asia. They are of Persian/Iranian ethnic descent, although their exact origin is subject to debate. Legends link the Tajiks with Alexander the Great and his campaign in the region north of Afghanistan and west of China what is today Tajikistan. More likely, contemporary Tajiks are descendants of the Persian-speaking population that resided in the sedentary regions of what is now Central Asia, particularly in the country of Tajikistan.

Tajikistan had a population of 6,719,567 in 2002, of which approximately 4,361,000 were ethnic Tajik (64.9%). However, if one adds to that the million or so Tajiks that live in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, respectively, the number increases to well above six million Tajiks in Central Asia. What makes these calculations difficult is the fact that defining oneself as a Tajik is a construct of the Soviet era. Prior to the early twentieth century, people in the region defined themselves more on tribal and clan affiliations or by their adherence to Islam than to an ethnic identity. In neighboring Uzbekistan, for example, ethnic Tajiks claim that they are actually more prominent than the official statistics of that country suggest. Within the Republic of Tajikistan, other significant minorities include Uzbeks (25.0%) and Russians (3.5%). Many Russians emigrated from Tajikistan immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union, particularly during the period of the civil war (19921997). Most of the Uzbeks live in the northern region of Sogd, previously known as Leninobod (Leninabad). The remaining Russians live in the capital city of Dushanbe, which in 2002 had an overall population of 590,000, although that figure undoubtedly was an underestimation.

The Tajiks speak an eastern dialect of Farsi, the language of Iran. The languages are mutually intelligible; although as modern Tajik is written in the Cyrillic script and not in the Arabic script, there can be difficulties between the two. Indeed, throughout the past century, Tajik has been written

in Arabic, Latin, and Cyrillic scripts. It is the intention of the current government to return to the Arabic script, although the practical difficulties of such a move have slowed any such effort.

In contrast to the Iranians, the Tajiks are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School, not Shi'a Muslims like Iranians. This is the result of the history of religious centers in the region, such as Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, where a number of ethnic Tajiks live. More importantly, the Safavid dynasty that made Shi'a Islam the official religion of Persia did not control the traditional Tajik territories. There is a small sect of Isma'ili Shi'a in the Badakhshon area of eastern Tajikistan that is loyal to the spiritual leader of the Aga Khan. In addition, the non-Tajiks in the country practice a range of religions.

Tajiks point to the Sassanid dynasty of the early tenth century as a founding moment in their history. Traditionally, the Tajiksor Tajik speakersoccupied urban areas of Central Asia, especially the key trading cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.

Indeed, many were the economic and political elite of the Bukharan Emirate, which was prominent in the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The Emirate eventually became a Protectorate of the Russian Empire in the 1870s and until 1917 was closely associated with the tsarist regime. After the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War, which brought about the Uzbek S.S.R., the Tajik Autonomous S.S.R was established. On October 5, 1929, the Soviet government officially declared it a full-fledged Union Republic. At 143,000 square kilometers, Tajikistan is one of the smaller countries in the region. It is largely mountainous, with the Pamirs dominating the eastern part of the country (the region known as the Badakhshon Autonomous Region).

Within a year of independence from the USSR, the Tajik government collapsed due to infighting among rival groups and a five-year civil war ensued (19921997). The war was largely seen as a struggle between regional rivals. In 1997, the opposing sides agreed to form a National Reconciliation Committee (NRC) that set the stage for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. President Imo-mali Rakhmonov successfully consolidated his authority in the postwar era and in the early twenty-first century has a firm control of the country, which continues to be dominated by regional and clan rivalries.

Tajikistan is an overwhelmingly mountainous country that has few natural resources other than mineral wealth. Tajikistan was the source of strategic minerals for the Soviet nuclear program and continues to be a supplier of other minerals for export. In particular, aluminum is deemed important and is the foundation for one of the region's largest aluminum processing plants in Tursun-Zade. There are modest oil and gas deposits, but these are used exclusively for domestic consumption. Cotton is also a product traditionally exported.

Because of the civil war, economic development in the country has been abysmally low. It is estimated that the production levels of the country are less than half of the 1991 figures. Since 2001, international financial institutions have increased their commitments to Tajikistan to begin the process of rebuilding the economy. Of particular interest are the possibilities in hydroelectric energy and continued development of mineral reserves. The total gross national product (GNP) for 2001 was $7.5 billion, giving an estimated purchasing power parity (PPP) at $1,140 per capita. Per capita income is actually less than $600, with many earning as little as $10 per month in actual salary.

Because it is a landlocked country that requires open access to outside trade routes, Tajikistan is dependent upon building strong relations with its neighborsChina, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic. Of particular importance is the fact that Tajiks are prominent in neighboring Uzbekistan, especially in the historic cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. Another key issue for Tajikistan is the fact that Iran feels some affinity toward the country. Iran played a key role in facilitating the peace talks in the mid-1990s and, at least at that time, felt it could be a more significant player in the country.

Finally, Tajik support of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan has paid modest returns. There is currently a small U.S.-base facility in Dushanbe and strategic assistance from the United States to Tajikistan has increased substantially. Tajikistan is now part of the NATO Partnership for Peace program. The Tajik government hopes that these increased external relations will eventually translate into increased economic assistance. In turn, this aid will help stabilize a very precarious domestic situation.

See also: islam; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


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Roger Kangas