The Tajikistan edition of Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda has been shuttered following publication of an article that officials say cast aspersions on the country.
The offending piece, written by Russian journalist Sergei Ponomaryov, was indeed an exercise in crude stereotypes and drew on characters popularized by sketch show “Nasha Russia.”
The opening paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the article: “On the plane from Moscow to the ancient city of Khujand, the capital of northern Tajikistan and the second city in the country, mine was the only Slavic countenance. The rest was straight-up Ravshan and Jamshuds.”
The premise of the sketches featuring those migrant laborer characters was to show Tajiks as primitive and dimwitted, although nonetheless sometimes besting their exasperated Russian taskmasters. The 2011 film made from the TV show was banned in Tajikistan.
Sharif Hamdampur, editor of the Tajikistan edition of the tabloid, was quick to agree about the offensiveness of the article.
“When I read the article I understood that it respected neither journalistic nor professional ethical standards. In the article there are statements that insult Tajiks and the country as a whole,” Hamdampur said on July 21.
The editor said he appealed in vain with the newspaper’s top management to have the article spiked.
“Within two days, I took the decision to halt the activities of this newspaper in Tajikistan,” he said.”This is because this newspaper, with which I cooperate, has offended my nation and my government. He [the journalist] even says: ‘I went to the country of Ravshan and Jamshud’ and not to Tajikistan.”
A court in Tajikistan has sentenced the leader of an ultraconservative Islamic Salafist movement to eight years in prison on charges of membership in an extremist organization.
As RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported on July 19, Muhammadi Rahmatullo’s case has been shrouded in secrecy and marked as classified information, so few details are known. This is not so unusual in Tajikistan of late as the government has become increasingly opaque about the multitude of criminal cases it pursues against its real and perceived opponents.
Not much is known about Rahmatullo.
He first emerged as a self-described Salafist in the early 2000s, when the current first established itself in the country, having been brought back by Tajiks that had taken refuge in Pakistan during the civil war. In 2008, Rahmatullo claimed in an interview that his movement counted 20,000 Tajik citizens.
The movement was banned by a Supreme Court decision after a wave of mysterious blasts in Dushanbe in 2009. Rahmatullo fell out of public view around that time. During that time, it is believed he busied himself converting migrants working outside Tajikistan, particularly in the regions of Russia, and studying at the Faculty of Shariah and Law of the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. According to Radio Ozodi, Rahmatullo returned to Tajikistan in 2011, but what he got up is not a matter of public record.
Tajikistan’s Finance Ministry has conceded that the national currency will continue to lose value, although it only expects it to happen gradually, over the coming three years.
Reuters reported on July 14 that Finance Ministry forecasts, drawn up as part of budget planning, see the somoni slipping from its current 7.9 to the dollar to 9.6 in 2017, 10.4 in 2018 and 11.2 in 2019. Inflation for those years is seen at 7 percent.
“This is just a forecast. There will be no devaluation. The rate depends on many factor, mainly external ones, and indicators of the gold and currency reserves,” a National Bank source told Reuters.
External factors indeed.
Russia’s Central Bank announced in March that the amount of money transferred to Tajikistan last year has fallen almost 67 percent, from $3.8 billion in 2014 to $1.28 billion last year. The figure in 2013 was $4.16 billion.
Still the National Bank appears bullish about the prospects.
“We believe that there will not be so much external pressure as in 2014, since we see a certain degree of progress in the Russian economy, despite the negative prognosis,” the National Bank source told Reuters.
Tajikistan’s arsenal for stabilizing the currency is severely depleted. Foreign reserves are dwindling at dangerously low levels. And the banking system is teetering on the verge of a total meltdown.
Accountholders at the main two banks — Tojiksodirotbank and Agroinvestbank — have for months had trouble getting their hands on their savings or withdrawing salaries paid through the lenders. And there is anecdotal evidence the rot is now spreading to more of the country’s half a dozen or so systemic banks. Customers at Eskhata Bank and Imon International have reported some instances of reduced liquidity.
Tajikistan’s banking regulators are forcing retailers and restaurants to accept payment by bank card against the threat of fines of up to $1,000 in the latest wheeze to compensate for the lack of cash in circulation.
A National Bank decree that came into effect on July 1 reminds businesses that under a law adopted in December 2014, shops covering an area larger than 40 square meters need to have card processing terminals installed.
Entities liable to be fined have until next January to come into line with the rules.
The truth is though that outside the capital, shoppers are unlikely to get any satisfaction with their cards.
“Unfortunately, the infrastructure for card payment mainly exists in Dushanbe — the situation in other regions requires attention,” the National Bank had to admit ruefully.
While it might be desirable for business out in the regions to transition toward cashless transactions, if not just to help develop the country’s weak banking sector, there is clearly an ulterior motive at play. Developments in recent days, which have seen banks suffer fresh liquidity problems, suggest this is in fact a desperate, last-ditch measure to wean people off reliance on hard cash. Both the countries largest banks — Tojiksodirotbank and Agroinvestbank — are both experiencing trouble getting hold of enough money to hand out to desperate clients.
Tajikistan’s National Bank is once again pleading for an international bailout as the country’s lending sector remains mired in an existential crisis.
At a meeting with a visiting European Bank for Reconstruction and Development delegation, National Bank deputy chairman Jamoliddin Nuraliyev appealed for assistance to the country’s systemically important banks.
“It is necessary to carry out remedial work in some of the lending institutions,” Nuraliyev said, according to a National Bank statement. “I urge the executive directors of the EBRD during their coming board meetings to support proposals from the National Bank.”
Nuraliyev did not specify what those proposals were, but given that Tajikistan suffers from chronic liquidity problems, it is not hard to guess: Tajikistan desperately needs for its banks to be recapitalized.
The National Bank has already obtained assurances that the EBRD is to take a controlling stake in Tojiksodirotbank, the country’s second largest bank. The situation at that bank is grim. People who draw their salaries at the bank have had no joy for the best part of half a year and ATMs only began issuing money in June, after a hiatus lasting several months.
For what it’s worth though, Tojiksodirotbank chairman Tojidin Pirzoda has shrugged off talk of insolvency.
“Rumors about Tojiksodirotbank being on the verge of bankruptcy have been spread by certain people and certain interested parties,” he told state news agency Khovar back in January, without providing names or details.
The state commission in charge of the project for Tajikistan’s Rogun mega-dam has picked Italian company Salini Impregilo to carry out the construction, although it remains unclear where the money is to come from.
Khovar state news agency reported on July 1 that the agreement to design, source material and build the hydroelectric power plant will set Tajikistan back $3.9 billion. The project is broken down into four components, with the most expensive one involving the building of a 335-meter-high rockfill dam — the tallest in the world — which will entail costs of around $1.95 billion.
“The three remaining lots are seen being assigned to the Group by Sept. 30, 2016,” Milan-based Salini Impregilo said in a statement.
The Italian company boasts on its website of significant experience in major dam-building projects. One listed on its website is a €2.5 billion ($2.8 billion) hydroelectric plant in Ethiopia with an installed capacity of 2,200 megawatts. That comes substantially short of Rogun, however, which will, if completed under the current design, have six 600 megwatt turbines to make up for a total installed capacity of 3,600 megawatts — equivalent to three nuclear plants, as Salini Impregilo points out.
Governments in Tajikistan will under new rules now have to swear an oath of office to the president before they can begin doing their jobs.
Although the requirement is largely symbolic, it will serve to further elevate the office of the president and the status of its current occupant, Emomali Rahmon, to a quasi-regal level. As such, the change is in keeping with Tajikistan’s devolution into an autocracy underpinned by a cult of personality.
Member of parliament Mavzuna Sharofiddinova told RFE/RL’s Tajik serice, Radio Ozodi, that the oath to the president would make the government more effective and improve its performance.
Parliament, however, will continue to swear fealty to the people rather than the president himself.
In another episode of toadying, parliament on June 22 also approved the creation of a new holiday with a symbolic date. Diplomat’s Day will be observed on September 29, which falls on the anniversary of Rahmon’s first ever address before the UN General Assembly in 1993.
On point of fact though, the first address by a Tajik official to the UN was actually in 1992 by the then foreign minister, Hudoiberdi Holiknazar.
In the hope of earning such lavish adulation, Rahmon has been making some lofty promises this week.
In a speech on June 21, he promised that average life expectancy would in the next 15 years be raised to 80, up from around 69 at the moment. Child mortality rates will be lowered to “international standards” over that same span, he pledged.
Rahmon also vowed the level of formal employment will be increased from 40 percent to 70 percent of the work-able population and that preschool places will be made available to 50 percent of eligible children, up from 12 percent at the moment.
One of the most notorious figures in Tajikistan’s post-independence history and a once-indispensable ally of President Emomali Rahmon was released from jail on June 21.
Yakub Salimov, whose storied life includes stints as a racketeer, pogrom organizer, warlord and Interior Minister, was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2005 on charges of treason for attempting to mount an attempted coup in the late 1990s. Unusually for Tajikistan, the charges were almost certainly justified. The sentence was subsequently shortened by amnesty.
Salimov’s release has long been trailed but remains no less surprising considering the extent of the bad blood between him and Rahmon.
The coup charges against Salimov were filed in 1998, but he managed to evade arrest for several years before finally being deported from Russia in 2003.
His rise to the post of Interior Minister came in April 1992, when the exiled Supreme Soviet, based in the northern city of Khujand, appointed a Cabinet composed almost entirely of natives of Kulyab — Rahmon’s primary power base — and Khujand, where most of the Soviet-era Tajik elite emerged. Dushanbe was under armed opposition control at the time.
With his experience as a feared gangster, Salimov became one of the tough men of the hour. Still, notwithstanding the unfolding war of the time, that a man with his past should have been picked to become head of the police provoked much disbelief.
Authorities in Tajikistan have said they have all but contained a breakout from a jail in the northern city of Khujand, while at least one media outlet has reported that numerous prisoners have escaped.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that one man was shot dead while trying to flee the prison in a breakout that occurred at 8:45 p.m on June 17. Another prisoner was wounded and captured during the breakout, while a third managed to escape, despite sustaining injuries, the statement said.
Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that a prison guard, 52-year-old Ermamad Alimamadov, was stabbed to death during the escape.
Officials have variously speculated to the media that the fugitives were plotting to cross over to Afghanistan and possibly attempt to join the ranks of the Islamic State group.
The escapees were named as Ramzullohon Dodohonov, Habibjon Yusupov, Mirzozarif Kayumov. Dodohonov was sentenced to 20 years in jail in 2013 for allegedly participating in militant activities in Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan. Kayumov was serving a 14-year jail sentence handed down in December for fighting alongside Islamist radicals in Iraq. The standout figure in the trio was Yusupov, who was also sentenced to 20 years in jail in 2014, but over a non-religious extremism-related case. He took part in the robbery of a money exchange point that culminated with the death of an employee.
Kayumov was shot dead by guards as he was trying to flee. Yusupov was wounded and detained. Dodohonov incurred injuries too, but managed to escape.
The U.S.'s primary interests in Central Asia are making sure the region doesn't become a terrorist sanctuary and protecting it from Russian influence, a senior State Department official has testified. The statement suggests a shift in Washington (rhetorically, at least) toward a Central Asia policy oriented toward security and away from political reforms and human rights.
U.S. official statements about Central Asia policy usually describe Washington's interests as threefold: promoting political and economic reform, developing the region's oil and gas resources, and improving security. The introduction to the testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Daniel Rosenblum at a congressional hearing last year was typical:
Since the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago, the United States has supported the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of the states of Central Asia, while also promoting the political and economic reforms that can ensure their long-term stability and prosperity. U.S. security is directly tied to a stable Central Asia. Central Asia’s energy resources and transport corridors can help drive regional and global economic growth in the decades to come. And some of Central Asia’s most serious challenges – such as transnational crime, terrorism, violent extremism, and climate change – affect our national interests as well, and require us to work closely together with them.