Abduljali Karimov runs a fruit stand in Hushyori, a village 45 kilometers north of Dushanbe, on the main road to Tajikistan’s second largest city, Khujand. In April, a new neighbor moved in next door: a tollbooth. Since then, he says prices in his mountainous hamlet have been on the rise.
“Drivers have to pay more to pass through the tolls, we have to pay more for our goods and customers have to pay more for our products. It’s not a good situation,” Karimov says.
Chinese contractors working under a $296-million loan from Beijing resurfaced the 345-kilometer road between Tajikistan’s two largest cities between 2007-2010. In April, Innovative Road Solutions (IRS) -- a company registered in the British Virgin Islands and whose ownership a government minister has categorized as a “trade secret” -- opened four tollbooths on the new highway. The company is currently constructing two more tollbooths to open in the coming weeks.
Karimov and his neighbors would like to know where the toll revenue is going. A lack of transparency is fueling public anger, not only toward the mysterious company managing the tollbooths, but toward officials who have authorized their construction. Many people assume that the people involved in setting up the tolls are the ones profiting, not the state.
Until recently, Tajik law prohibited the establishment of toll roads in cases where there was no viable alternative route. As this major highway traverses two passes at over 3,000 meters in altitude, there is no alternative, other than driving through Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, the Tajik parliament voted to amend the law on transportation, scrapping the need for an alternative route and opening the way for IRS to begin charging the tolls. Currently, the total toll cost for a two-axel passenger vehicle traveling from Dushanbe to Khujand is 104.7 somoni (23 dollars).
IRS’s Technical Director Rustam Abdullaev explained that the government hired IRS to build and manage the tollbooths. In local media reports, Abdullaev has suggested that IRS has extensive experience overseas, but provided no documentation to support the claim. IRS representatives decline to name its owner, a fact that has many believing the company has some connection to top-level authorities in the country.
One toll that opened in April in a northern Dushanbe suburb has cut workers off from the capital. These merchants and laborers are obliged to pay 3.6 somoni ($ 0.80) every time they cross – twice a day – significantly reducing impacting their take-home pay. Similarly, another toll stands between Karimov’s village and shops in the next village. That toll costs 6.4 somoni (or $1.45) to cross each way.
On April 22, in a rare sign of mass dissent, 10,000 Varzob residents signed an open letter to the president appealing for assistance. Their move had no immediate effect on redressing their complaint. [For background, see EurasiaNet archive].
IRS has also come under fire from within the government, in what some observers believe is a staged effort to appear concerned. The Asia-Plus news agency reported on May 11 that the State Anti-Monopoly Agency had requested company revenue statements for inspection, apparently with the aim of reducing the toll amounts. When IRS failed to comply, Amonulloh Ashur, head of the agency, declared its operation illegal and threatened to take the issue up with Tajikistan’s High Economic Court.
In late June, Asia-Plus published a Q&A with IRS’ technical director, Abdullaev, who, among other things, explained that residents living in the vicinity of the toll booths would be eligible for a roughly 50 percent discount on tolls. Villagers living close to the tolls are still waiting to receive their toll breaks.
“The government said a lot, but nothing happened. There were no discounts for people living stuck between the tolls and no cards for villagers. IRS [representatives] are like official bandits,” one villager living near the Varzob tollbooth just north of Dushanbe told EurasiaNet.org. Others demanded an explanation from Abdullaev as to why the tollbooths were operating even though large sections of the road remain unfinished.
A driver that moves freight between Khujand and Dushanbe, Korbon Ebodov, expressed frustration over the appearance of toll booths, “they cause traffic jams and waste our time. There were four and now they’re building two more. We don’t know if it’s going to be more expensive.”
The lack of information surrounding IRS’ operations has fuelled speculation on its activities and the names of its executive officers. Government officials appear intent on keeping the company’s ownership from the public. At a July 27 news conference, Minister of Transport Olim Boboev claimed that the name of the owner of the company was a “trade secret.” On July 31, anti-corruption boss Fattoh Saidov clarified that IRS’s activities were “trade secrets,” but not the owner’s name. Threatened with libel, journalists investigating the case believe officials are simply trying to obscure the issue, hoping it will go away.