Tajiks keep faith with law of gun: Hugh Pope visits Soviet-style collectives in Tajikistan and finds the threat of Islamic fundamentalism giving new life to old habits

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THE collective farm manager plucked up his courage, anticipating the shock to his system of another blast of fiery medicinal alcohol in a toast to what he insisted was a rosier future for Tajikistan.

'Another habit we learnt from the Russians,' said Babanazar Pirnazarov, grimacing with pain as he drained his shallow Central Asian teacup of raw liquor. Watched over by a portrait of Lenin, he tried to dilute the effect with great spoonfuls of yoghurt and hunks of meat torn off the boiled-up remains of a cow, spread on a round chapati.

Our impromptu office feast for the great and the good of the Path of Lenin Collective Farm was yet another sign that the old socialist reality is dying hard in this remote corner of the former Soviet Union, where the hammer and sickle proudly flies, farms still bear Communist names and a whole district is simply called Moscow.

The Path of Lenin Collective was like many others around Tajikistan's fertile southern plain. Mud, snow, shortages and occasionally drunken managers reinforced the impression of a continuing Soviet lifestyle, typically malfunctioning, but which, as local people were quick to point out, contrasted with the chaos over the Afghan border two miles away.

The system has even absorbed a devastating outbreak of food poisoning in which 45 people have died since September. Hundreds are still ill, their stomachs and livers bloated by a theoretically untreatable disease caused by the seeds of a heliotrope weed that infested wheatgrains during the harvest. Twenty of the deaths were among the 8,000 people of the Path of Lenin Collective, desperate for any food during a blockade during last year's fighting.

'Only 1 per cent of cases died, thanks to early diagnosis and then help from all over the world. Our last new case came in weeks ago,' said Dr Safarali Yakubov, deputy head of a local hospital. Facilities were primitive, but an inspector was busy compiling statistics and orderlies washed down corridors.

It would be an over-simplification to say that the re-establishment of a conservative, legally elected government in Tajikistan in the past three months is a resurgence of Communism against Islamic fundamentalist elements of the 'opposition' regime that seized power for 10 weeks last autumn. More important are vicious blood-feuding, regional rivalries, the policies of Russia and conservative regional states such as Uzbekistan, and a simple re-assertion of the old technocratic elite. 'We are not socialists, capitalists, or anything. We are in between,' said Iskandar Majidzadeh, a teacher in the nearby Lenin Collective Farm, also in the Kuliab region that now dominates Tajik politics.

As is increasingly common in northern Muslim countries faced by an Islamic fundamentalist threat, many people resented criticism from radical ideologues. They said they were practising Muslims who also respected tolerance, progress and the fact that the Soviet Union built most of Tajikistan out of virtually nothing.

Mr Majidzadeh said people were now more hopeful that life would get better. All 13,000 people on the Lenin Collective could keep their own animals and grow substantial supplies on the quarter-acre plots most houses had as a garden. Mortgages, debts or interest payments are almost unheard of. The collectives still receive hidden subsidies, but can now sell 30 per cent of their produce themselves. Any sense of a private sector is still in its infancy. 'We Tajiks just don't have a merchant mentality,' said the province's head of exports, trying to explain why one town had petrol but the next did not.

Unfortunately, Tajiks still have to conquer the rapidly acquired mentality of settling matters with guns. Fighting continues in the east and in the south of the country; the victorious pro-government Popular Front militia from Kuliab still rules the roost under its leader, Sangak Safarov.

Sitting in the bullet-chipped former offices of the regional governor of Gorgan-tyube - now amalgamated with Kuliab into a new province called Katlan - Mr Safarov is trying to rein in his gunmen and reverse his fearsome image into something more suited to his grey-bearded age of 65.

With a heavy scar on his lip, his boasts of 23 years in jail and with deputies whose roars of anger can be heard several offices away, Mr Safarov has some way to go. But the toasts to internationalism that he proposes to his guests would warm the hearts of the many people in Central Asia who are nostalgic for the certainties of the Soviet era.

'This is not a resurgence of Communism, we just wanted to be free of Islamic fundamentalism. Those people wanted the place to be a colony of Iran,' he said. 'We are against excesses, but some people have committed too many crimes. As on the scene of battle, they should be shot.'