A Tajik Factory Smelts Russian Ore With Russian Rubles

CLOSE by the border with Uzbekistan, the vast complex of the Tajik Aluminum Plant sprawls across a rolling valley. Here about 10,000 workers toil in the red-hot heat of half-mile-long smelters to produce several hundred thousand tons of gleaming aluminum, carefully stacked in ingots.

While most of the economy of this civil-war-wracked nation has ground to a halt, the aluminum plant here keeps working, albeit at only slightly more than half its capacity. The reason for its relative success is not hard to discern - aside from its locale, this plant has little to do with Tajikistan.

``It's a little piece of Russia,'' a diplomat here says. The raw material for the metal comes from Russia and elsewhere, transported via Uzbekistan. And the processed metal goes out the same way. The only thing the plant gets from this Central Asian country is electricity from a huge hydroelectric plant.

Such cheap power, needed for aluminum processing, is the reason for the existence of this factory here, admits plant director Mikhail Sinani, the Russian who came here from North Korea nine years ago to construct and run the factory.

The plant is nominally the property of the Tajik government but, Mr. Sinani admits, ``I rarely turn to them.''

Indeed the pudgy Russian manager seems to spend his time mostly on the phone to Moscow.

For the Russians, the plant's output is some return on the growing cost of bolstering the Tajik government. The country has no currency of its own, depending on Russian rubles. Last December the Russians promised credits of 120 billion rubles (about $70 million), but after watching 40 billion in cash quickly flow out of Tajikistan, they halted more transfers.

Cash rubles are in desperately short supply. Workers at this plant get only 64,000 out of their average 400,000-ruble monthly salary in cash, the rest put on account. Many government employees have not been paid since last December. A Tajik government delegation flew to Moscow last week frantically seeking more money but the tight lid on the results of their talks suggests the Tajiks did not get what they wanted.

Observers say Moscow is demanding control over the few valuable assets here - the aluminum plant, electricity plant, and cotton production - as collateral. ``If the credits are not repaid, they will take control, including management, including taking the profits, of certain industries here,'' the diplomat says.

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