“Of all the countries to emerge from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan has arguably fared the worst. It ranks 149th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, worse than every other former Soviet republic except Turkmenistan. It has the highest poverty rate of the former Soviet republics; a full 27 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) is the result of remittances sent home by Tajik migrants working mostly in Russia; and its GDP per capita for 2021 ($810) ranks 179th out of the 195 countries for which the International Monetary Fund has data.
Why is Tajikistan so poor? It is landlocked, which means importing and exporting are more expensive and the country is more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions. And the violent civil war that followed the USSR’s fall, which pitted the incumbent Soviet power holders and their militias against a coalition of liberal reformers, anti-Soviet Islamists, and ethnic minorities, killed tens of thousands of people and displaced over 1 million Tajiks.
But geography and past conflict only explain so much. Tajikistan is rich with largely untapped mineral resources, and its mountain ranges are ideal for the kind of ecotourism that has made Nepal one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
Tajikistan is the sick man of Central Asia because it is ruled by a despot who has enriched himself and his relatives at the expense of millions of his malnourished countrymen. Emomali Rahmon has been Tajikistan’s official president since 1994 and “Leader of the Nation”—a lifetime appointment that provides him with immunity from prosecution—since 2015. In all but name, he is a king.”