TAJIKISTAN, LITERALLY THE "LAND OF THE TAJIKS," has ancient cultural roots. The people now known as the Tajiks are the Persian speakers of Central Asia, some of whose ancestors inhabited Central Asia (including present-day Afghanistan and western China) at the dawn of history. Despite the long heritage of its indigenous peoples, Tajikistan has existed as a state only since the Soviet Union decreed its existence in 1924. The creation of modern Tajikistan was part of the Soviet policy of giving the outward trappings of political representation to minority nationalities in Central Asia while simultaneously reorganizing or fragmenting communities and political entities.

Of the five Central Asian states that declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan is the smallest in area and the third largest in population. Landlocked and mountainous, the republic has some valuable natural resources, such as waterpower and minerals, but arable land is scarce, the industrial base is narrow, and the communications and transportation infrastructures are poorly developed.

As was the case in other republics of the Soviet Union, nearly seventy years of Soviet rule brought Tajikistan a combination of modernization and repression. Although barometers of modernization such as education, health care, and industrial development registered substantial improvements over low starting points in this era, the quality of the transformation in such areas was less impressive than the quantity, with reforms benefiting Russian-speaking city dwellers more than rural citizens who lacked fluency in Russian. For all the modernization that occurred under Soviet rule, the central government's policies limited Tajikistan to a role as a predominantly agricultural producer of raw materials for industries located elsewhere. Through the end of the Soviet era, Tajikistan had one of the lowest standards of living of the Soviet republics.

Independence came to Tajikistan with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The first few years after that were a time of great hardship. Some of the new republic's problems--including the breakdown of the old system of interdependent economic relationships upon which the Soviet republics had relied, and the stress of movement toward participation in the world market--were common among the Soviet successor states. The pain of economic decline was compounded in Tajikistan by a bloody and protracted civil conflict over whether the country would perpetuate a system of monopoly rule by a narrow elite like the one that ruled in the Soviet era, or establish a reformist, more democratic regime. The struggle peaked as an outright war in the second half of 1992, and smaller-scale conflict continued into the mid-1990s. The victors preserved a repressive system of rule, and the lingering effects of the conflict contributed to the further worsening of living conditions.


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