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Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Internet and mobile phones bring wider world to Tajikistan

AFP , DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN

A future doctor in the impoverished and isolated former Soviet republic of Tajikistan has just touched base with the rest of the world for the first time.

He furrowed his forehead while reading though e-mail at one of the 100 or so Internet cafes that have popped up across a country that nestles nervously on the northern border of Afghanistan and remains overrun by drugs and crime.

"I have discovered e-mail," Fakhriddin rejoiced while enjoying coffee in the crowded cafe.

The first Internet cafe opened up here just five years ago. That was two years after the end of a brutal civil war that killed tens of thousands, although figures have never been officially confirmed. Tensions still simmer.

But there is a young hip crowd emerging in this Central Asian nation of few resources ravaged by the dictates of Soviet era planning. Tajikistan is looking West and seeking to emulate its ways.

Fakhriddin is also joining the 80,000 or so other users -- in a nation of 7 million people -- in search of a mobile phone to hook up with friends, in a country where land lines are miserable.

The confident 19-year-old, sporting a mustache, came from the Tajik provinces, which were recently hit by famine, to study in the capital.

"Learning things on the computer is interesting and it makes me happy. But they also have games -- and, I am sorry -- sex," he said.

Government estimates say there are now 50,000 people who have access to the Internet in the predominantly Muslim nation, the poorest in the former Soviet Union.

Things suddenly seem to be booming.

There are six mobile operators competing against each other. Local communication officials said a US firm that they fail to identify may soon be joining the fray.

Not all operators can reach across the towering Tajik mountains but young people in Dushanbe -- a war zone not so long ago -- are strutting their stuff with the latest model attached to their ears.

Tajik authorities agreed four years ago that sitting in Central Asia, they were cut off from the world and something had to be done since Moscow was no longer providing help.

So they opened up the Internet market, which is now being serviced by 10 providers who all agreed to spread their services to the remote, often hardly accessible regions.

"People, especially in large cities, have money they now want to spend," said Tajik communications ministry spokeswoman Lyubov Kovalevskaya.

"But the most important thing is still political stability," she said.

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