Crossroads Asia

Pointing to Perestroika: Explaining Social Unrest in Tajikistan

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Crossroads Asia

Pointing to Perestroika: Explaining Social Unrest in Tajikistan

The glasnost–democratization–nationalism argument for unrest in newly-independent Tajikistan leaves out economic factors.

Pointing to Perestroika: Explaining Social Unrest in Tajikistan
Credit: Gharm via

One of the standard narratives explaining the collapse of the Soviet Union points to the policy of glasnost as unleashing pent-up unrest across the republics. In general, this theory has been applied to Tajikistan’s history to explain the rapid onset of civil war shortly after independence. Unrest had been brewing in the Tajik Soviet Social Republic over the years prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse, but, as Isaac Scarborough argues in a recent paper, the standard narrative–pegging democratization and nationalism as the main triggers–inadequately explains the history.

Scarborough’s argument walks  through the years preceding the Soviet collapse to arrive at the conclusion that the standard narrative doesn’t explain what happened in Tajikistan. He not so much discounts rising nationalism as a piece of the puzzle, but pushes for a re-examination of economic triggers.

Instead, Scarborough points to perestroika and argues “that it was the sharp and unprecedented collapse of the Tajik economy that led many Tajiks into the streets and into rebellion against a social order that by 1991 no longer fulfilled any of the guarantees it had long promised and made good upon.”

“Life in the Tajik SSR in 1985 was good – and was getting better,” Scarborough writes. Prior to perestroika the Tajik SSR was “a sleepy Soviet backwater” with a reputation in Moscow of being a calm and “reliably pliant” republic. Although Tajik SSR remained the Soviet Union’s least urbanized republic, great gains were made in social services, particularly education. But “serious economic imbalances were held just below the surface.” The cotton industry in particular “created a localized economy that functionally provided many of the benefits of modern Soviet society without their attendant social transformations.”

But by and large, things were improving, in part because of the Soviet policy of equalization, “whereby the state made it a goal to bring the less developed republics (such as Tajikistan) up to the standard of living of the more developed republics (such as the Baltic states).” But in 1986 the policy disappeared from state policy, and with it subsidies that had made improvements in the Tajik SSR possible. “Over time the Tajik republican government found itself increasingly lacking cash, denied previous subsidies, and yet still obligated to produce cotton at massive rates.” Pushed to produce more with less, amid breakdowns in the supply of industrial machinery, and a focus on decentralizing the country’s economy, the Tajik SSR started to feel the stress of change. “By 1990 the Tajik economy was sputtering. Its industries, already underdeveloped, were increasingly denied the inputs necessary for their basic operation, lowering as a result their profits and payments to the republican budget.”

Scarborough unpacks some of the assumptions that come with the standard narrative, assessing the impact of glasnost, democratization and nationalism in feeding Tajikistan’s post-independence crisis. Particularly interesting is Scarborough’s linkage of the glasnost-democratization-nationalism trifecta to both Western political science and Russian narratives immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“Glasnost provides a compelling causal logic to Tajikistan’s struggles in the early 1990s, and one that matches well with Western political science, which tends to emphasize the long-term costs of authoritarianism and its potential for strife.” Put more simply, it is difficult for some in the West to square the reality that life in an authoritarian society might be satisfactory for many. Scarborough points to two assumptions underlying the glasnost explanation of Tajikistan’s strife: first, it requires the assumption “that Tajiks were fundamentally unhappy with life in the USSR” and second, that the openness following glasnost “brought to the fore problems that had been either unknown or simply not discussed in the past.” Scarborough notes that the majority of Tajiks were both generally happy with their lives and also aware of the political and economic realities of their society.

“The glasnost–democratization–nationalism argument was quickly picked up by other Soviet politicians and Western journalists, and by the end of the USSR had come to dominate coverage of political events in the country,” Scarborough writes. For the powers-that-be in Moscow, the argument–although Western in origin–nonetheless relieve them of responsibility, allowing blame “for social unrest to be shifted away from the current political and economic reforms onto the Soviet system and those who had developed its structure in the 1930s.”

Scarborough’s historical analysis is particularly timely. Modern Tajikistan remains underdeveloped and caught in a tight economic bind. Politically the state has further centralized into a cult of personality, but President Emomali Rahmon has not necessarily been able to deliver the progress that placates public frustration with an authoritarian system.

Scarborough’s paper, published in Central Asian Survey, is available in full here (free!).