Heroin: The Lifeblood of Tajikistan’s Economy

Less than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, former Soviet republic Tajikistan can best be classified as an economic catastrophe: Tajikistan is dependent on remittances from Tajiks living abroad and this is equivalent to roughly 45% of GDP. Further, poverty is extremely widespread, with half of the country’s population of eight million living on less than two dollars a day.

Following Tajikistan’s independence in 1991 from the USSR, the country descended into a civil war lasting for five years after which President Emomali Rakhmon began constructing his power base through patronage networks. Foreign analysts believe that he is actively involved in Tajikistan’s burgeoning drug trade. Additionally, the situation is rather hopeless, however, in terms of accountability: those in charge of maintaining security check points along the trade route are hired by the president thus they owe their jobs to him and other high-level officials tied to Emomali’s patronage network.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that a third of Afghan opiates travel through the former Soviet republics in Central Asia en route to Russia, with the vast majority of them passing through Tajikistan. Because of the state’s decrepit economy, the trade route remains a lifeline for the Tajiks and has become one of the nation’s most valuable economic assets. Estimates vary, but some place the drug trade at a third to nearly half of Tajikistan’s GDP.

Yet, change is not only slow because of institutionalized corruption and facilitation of the illicit drug trade; rather, change is also complicated by the desperate situation many Tajiks find themselves in on a daily basis economically as well as fears that any major clampdown on the drug trade could lead to the indictment of very powerful officials – possibly resulting in renewed civil war.

The structural incentives for maintaining the status quo – indeed, for even institutionalizing it – are present in the relative ineffectiveness of Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency: During 2001, the agency showed an 80% decrease in the seizure of opiates, mostly from low-level dealers lacking ties to the patronage network governing the drug trade, even though Afghan production of opiates doubled during this same period.

With only a fraction of drugs being intercepted by the agency, and at that only the supplies of unconnected outliers, it is not hard to conclude that Tajik officials are using their powers to maintain their fiefs so to speak. International NGOs involved in quelling the drug trade have actually helped corrupt officials catch these upstarts and thus have reinforced the institutionalization of the drug trade on the state level by providing them with the latest in equipment and training.

Foreign governments are wary about forcing change upon Tajikistan with so much of the country’s economy dependent upon the drug trade. Doing so could jeopardize civil order and plunge the country into chaos. Intervention from the outside, from a state such as Russia, could complicate matters immensely.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan suffers from its lack of a real economy and those who work within the patronage network to trade drugs are finding the Silk Road their only path to a brighter future.


[The Economist]