Gulchehra Halimova, her husband Savriddin, and her extended family have lived on Suvorov Street in Dushanbe's center for 40 years. Over time, the family has added a yard and gardens, while expanding their traditional Central Asian home to accommodate 10 people.
The domestic quiet was shattered one day last December, when city officials informed Savriddin Halimov, a lawyer and businessman, and 12 neighboring homeowners that they would have to leave their properties by January 16. The homes were to be demolished to expand the nearby residence of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to Halimov, a parking lot for visiting dignitaries is slated to occupy the area where his home now stands.
In exchange for almost 300 square meters of total space, he said, officials offered his family a 40-square meter apartment on the edge of the city. They explained that the compensation procedure only took into account the size of living quarters, and not additional territory such as kitchens, courtyards, verandas, and storage buildings.
"I am a citizen of the republic and I respect its laws, but show me where in the constitution this is allowed," Halimov said, emphasizing that he supported Rahmon and his policies. "The residence is big enough. This additional 50 meters will not make any difference to him, but it makes a huge difference to my kids."
Sergey Romanov, manager of a monitoring center run by the Tajik Bureau for Human Rights, said stories like Halimov's had become increasingly common now that city authorities have revived a Soviet-era plan for the reconstruction of Dushanbe's center.
"According to national law -- namely, the housing code -- residents who are undergoing resettlement for public and governmental needs must receive equal-value compensation. In practice, though, after the removal of their housing people have been given accommodations of unequal value by law, on the outskirts of the city," Romanov said. Some had even claimed that the buildings provided were unsafe, he added.
The 1983 reconstruction plan divides Dushanbe into three concentric circles, envisioning an almost complete elimination of private homes from the innermost ring, to be replaced by multistory apartment buildings. An announcement in early 2007 that city officials had dusted off the urban renewal blueprints caused great alarm, particularly among the thousands of families living in the heart of the capital.
Most observers agree that the growing city needs new living space, and that poorly built homes, many of them erected during the 1992-1997 civil war, should be torn down. But critics say that city officials have not properly thought out the ambitious redevelopment project, especially given the dearth of private investors needed to turn the grand plan into reality.
Halimov said city officials were "putting the cart before the horse." An editorial published in early 2007 by the Tajik weekly Business and Politics agreed. "The realization of Dushanbe's general [reconstruction] plan begins with the demolition of housing in order to build 'accessible housing,' while people get moved out to the edge of the city. Perhaps it should go the other way around? Find investors, build accessible housing, [then] start with the demolition of dilapidated homes in order to improve the population's quality of life. That would at least be more logical."
Romanov noted a case in which residential land that had been cleared for government needs had been put to commercial use, saying such incidents could multiply in the near future. Local press reports cited several other examples of allegedly unfair treatment of residents by city officials carrying out the initial stages of reconstruction. "The right to housing touches on other rights -- the right to access to justice, the right to legal assistance, the right to fair compensation," as well as the issue of judicial independence from the executive in the case of appeals, Romanov said.
For the time being, the outcry seems to have put a brake on urban renewal. The mayor's office has emphasized that redevelopment will be carried out slowly, systematically and with regular public consultation. According to some reports, some projects are undergoing a re-evaluation and that demolition of homes will begin in 2009 at the earliest.
Meanwhile, Halimov and two other families living near the presidential residence, whose resettlement is separate from the 1983 plan, have taken their dispute to the courts. Although they lost in an initial hearing, Halimov said he hoped that their approaching appeal might prove successful, despite the heavy influence that city executives hold over the judiciary.
"During a break, the judge even said to me, 'you're right, but what can I do? It's an order from the mayor's office,'" Halimov said, adding that the city prosecutor had also expressed support. "As long as some call doesn't come down from above, right now, we have some small hope."
If successful, Romanov said, Halimov's case could set a significant precedent for families impacted by the pending reconstruction. The Bureau has no record of a citizen successfully challenging a decision of this sort by the powerful Dushanbe mayor's office.
Halimov vowed to take his appeal all the way to the Constitutional Court if needed. "This is the most sensitive issue for a person. They can take your car, your job, your means of living, and it would not matter as much," he said. "What is worth more -- living people or the city plan?"
Daniel Sershen is a freelance journalist based in Central Asia.