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Tajiks lose jobs and hopes as crisis hits the poor

DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Thousands of kilometers away from home, at a construction site in distant Moscow, Rakhima’s husband is struggling to earn enough money to feed his family back in Tajikistan.

He lost his full-time job at the end of last year as Russia took a hit from the global financial crisis. He has not seen his children for a year. Now he cannot afford to fly home any more.

“We are just trying to survive now,” Rakhima Vosirova, mother of four, said with a sigh as she scanned stalls at a market in the capital Dushanbe in search of affordable food.

“My husband has sent me only $150 so far this year,” she said, adding he used to make $1,400-$1,700 a month -- a huge sum compared with Tajikistan’s average monthly wage of $70.

Separated by 3,000 km (1,900 miles), the couple symbolizes the plight of millions of Tajik families in the impoverished ex-Soviet republic as the global economic slump takes its toll on its remittances-focused economy.

Plagued by poverty, rampant crime and now collapsing incomes, Tajikistan risks turning into a failed state -- a setback for the West which sees it as a new supply transit point for U.S. troops fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.

“If the international community must rely on Tajikistan to be a useful and productive ally, then Afghanistan is in serious trouble,” the International Crisis Group said last month.

“Far from being a bulwark against the spread of extremism and violence from Afghanistan, Tajikistan is looking increasingly like its southern neighbor -- a weak state that is suffering from a failure of leadership. ... At worst the government runs the risk of social unrest.”

About a million Tajiks, or half the workforce in the nation of 7 million, work abroad, mainly in Russia. Their remittances accounted for 43 percent of Tajikistan’s gross domestic product last year but fell by a fifth year-on-year in January.

The fact that Tajikistan lies on the main drug trafficking route to out of Afghanistan to Europe does not help.

Unlike the rest of the economy, the drug smuggling business is booming, creating additional risks of instability in a country still recovering from a bloody civil war in the 1990s.

“SEVERE IMPACT”

In Dushanbe, a city of crumbling Soviet grandeur and narrow backlanes lined with mudbrick houses, there have been no signs of public discontent so far -- a nod to the 17-year rule of President Imomali Rakhmon who tolerates little dissent.

Its gilded dome shimmering in the sun, Rakhmon’s palace towers high over the center, catching the eye of occasional passers-by.

The government is concerned that thousands of jobless men would suddenly rush back into a country that is unable to give them many job opportunities.

“The government doesn’t care about us,” said Samir, 45, a laborer who returned from Russia last year after losing a job there as a driver. “All they care about is making money to build luxury homes and buy Lexus cars.”

The official unemployment rate, at just 2.1 percent, is rarely taken into account by analysts as it includes only those who registered their jobless status with the authorities voluntarily -- an insignificant portion of society.

“The local market cannot absorb the expected labor supply,” said Pulat Pulatov, the head of a research institute under the Labor Ministry. “This creates the risk of growth in crimes such theft and robbery as people need to feed their families.”

Except for remittances, the only other source of national income is the state TALCO aluminum plant but its role decreased as the crisis sent world aluminum prices to a seven-year low.

“While for many low-income countries the effects of the crisis have lagged the rest of the world, its eventual impact may be severe,” the International Monetary Fund said in a report this month. It has cut Tajik economic growth to 3 percent from an earlier estimate of 7 percent.

Rakhima said her husband would stay in Moscow for now to help the family survive by doing short-term jobs. “We miss him very much,” Rakhima said. “But there’s no choice.”

Writing by Olzhas Auyezov, Editing by Maria Golovnina and Dominic Evans

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