Rahmon, seen here placing the first brick for his new city, likes to build.
Faced with a bulging population, Tajikistan’s government plans to build an entire new city in a stretch of northern desert. State television showed President Emomali Rahmon breaking ground this week, inspecting plans, receiving applause and placing the first brick.
Tajikistan’s population has more than doubled since 1979. With an annual growth rate of 2.3 percent, Tajikistan has the fastest growing population in Central Asia (the global average is around 1.2 percent), according to UN data.
The new city project – located 10 kilometers from Tajikistan’s second-largest city, Khujand – will house 250,000 people, the president’s website reports. Rahmon suggested the new city be named Saihun, after a nearby river. He ordered the building of over 50 new schools and 40 sports facilities. Over 7,000 hectares of orchard will rise from the desert, he promised.
The strongman likes to build. Last week, Rahmon laid the first stone for the region’s largest theatre. In 2011, he unveiled the world’s tallest flagpole (which was recently surpassed by another vainglorious dictatorship, Saudi Arabia). Tajikistan already boasts the world’s biggest teahouse, the region’s largest library (with few books) and has, for years, been building its largest mosque.
Reports that Russia is uncomfortable with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stepping into banking are nothing new. In particular, Moscow’s quiet efforts to block the creation of an SCO development bank that would funnel largely Chinese credit into Russia’s backyard have featured at the organization’s meetings in recent years.
But a thought-provoking analysis by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published last week by Russia in Global Affairs, suggests the Kremlin is mistaken, placing fears about appearing to be a junior partner over a sound geopolitical strategy that could give it a measure of control over China’s Central Asia policy.
The SCO – which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has tried hard to convince the world it is more than just a club for dictators. China’s push to include economic initiatives on the SCO agenda was a part of this process, Gabuev notes, and a development bank has been on the table at SCO powwows since 2009.
Tajikistan’s economy faces mounting troubles. The impoverished country has long been the most remittance-addicted in the world, with cash transfers from migrant laborers totaling the equivalent of almost half of GDP. But with the slowdown in Russia and tightened regulations for foreigners wishing to work there, remittances are now, as predicted, falling.
The national currency, the somoni, is also hurting, and it is unclear if the authorities are realistic about their options.
Last year remittance inflows declined over 8 percent to $3.9 billion according to Tajikistan’s National Bank. This year will be even gloomier. In early March, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast that remittances would drop 30 percent.
Meanwhile, officials in northern Tajikistan have reported a 30 percent drop in out-migration during the first months of 2015 compared to the same period last year. About one million Tajik citizens work abroad, mostly in Russia.
Emomali Rahmon meeting with PR flacks from United World in October 2014.
Any writer who deploys the word "stable" to describe Tajikistan without half a dozen caveats has either never heard of the place or is being paid to produce puff. Or both.
“Stable and Strategic at the Crossroads of Asia” declares the headline on a eight-page supplement (presumably not produced for free) distributed March 20 with USA Today, the largest paper by circulation in America.
Full of Silk Road tropes and liberally sprinkled with words of wisdom from President Emomali Rahmon, now in his 23rd year in power, the supplement may fool readers who have never heard of the corrupt and authoritarian Central Asian country, the poorest in the former Soviet Union.
It hits all the government’s key talking points: about Tajikistan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy; cooperation with the West fighting terror and drug trafficking; the visionary leadership of its president (so paranoid he has shut out political opposition despite power-sharing agreements); efforts to tap Tajikistan’s gas reserves (too deep to be economically feasible anytime soon); and the potential for tourism in its mountains (beautiful to be sure, but lacking infrastructure and requiring tiresome extra paperwork to visit the most spectacular places).
Besides the truth-bending, outright untruths abound. A piece on the finance sector highlights a local bank that is insolvent.
But the expectation seems to be that the average American reader will stay none the wiser.
President Emomali Rahmon opened Tajikistan’s new parliament on March 17 with a rousing, self-congratulatory speech. International observers may have found the March 1 parliamentarian elections to be full of fraud, but Rahmon felt the vote had represented the highest form of democracy.
After some initial confusion about the results, the new parliament contains just two opposition members, both representing the Communist Party. The Islamic Renaissance Party lost its seats for the first time. All other representatives in the 63-seat legislature are loyal to Rahmon’s regime. That Tajikistan held a “well organized, transparent, free and democratic” vote, the long-serving strongman said, was a clear “victory” for his impoverished Central Asian country:
The political campaign was held in a free and democratic atmosphere; this was highly appreciated by the representatives of authoritative international organizations, national and international observers. The Tajik people took part in this event with a high sense of patriotism, firm confidence for a brighter future and with a deep awareness of civic responsibility.
Tajikistan’s president often enthuses about leaving behind a country better than the one he took over 23 years ago. But the impoverished Central Asian nation fares poorly in many studies – from transparency and doing business to health and education – often because of the corruption that plagues the country’s weak institutions.
A new appointment promises to change all that.
On March 16, President Emomali Rahmon appointed his 27-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, to head the national anti-corruption agency – the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption – according to a decree posted on the president’s website. Emomali will report to his father and leave his post at the Customs Agency, which he has led for almost a year and a half.
The president is entrusting his son with one of the most delicate tasks in the country. In the past, the anti-corruption agency has been accused of helping some of Tajikistan’s murky criminal-political factions gain ascendency over others, of being a political tool to snuff out rivals. At the least, it has been faulted for not fulfilling its mandate. Tajikistan, after all, ranks 152 out of 175 in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
Tajikistan’s strongman President Emomali Rahmon has silenced the opposition at home without much of a fight. Abroad, his administration is employing help of Interpol – the avowedly non-political international police organization – to stifle dissident voices.
Acting on an Interpol all-points-bulletin, a so-called red notice, the Finnish authorities detained 31-year-old Sulaimon Davlatov on February 20. A long-time resident of St Petersburg, Russia, Davlatov was travelling to Lithuania when he was seized. The Tajik authorities accuse Davlatov of being a member of the outlawed Group 24 – and, without publicly presenting evidence, of sending citizens to fight in Syria.
Currently, the Interpol website lists 127 red notices for Tajik citizens. Their alleged crimes range from robbery and drug trafficking to terrorism.
Critics say the Interpol system is open to manipulation by authoritarians determined to track down their political rivals. The Warsaw-based Open Dialogue Foundation wrote in a February 24 report:
The party of Tajikistan’s strongman president, Emomali Rakhmon, has swept aside all opposition in a parliamentary vote that international observes say fell far short of democratic standards.
Since independnece, two mildly critical parties each held two seats in the largely rubber-stamp 63-seat Assembly of Representatives: the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) and the Communist Party. Though both had little power, their presence gave the body a democratic veneer. On March 1, neither met the 5 percent threshold needed to claim seats in parliament.
Instead, Rakhmon's ruling People’s Democratic Party increased its majority from 55 to 57 seats, local media reported. The remaining seven seats will be split among the Agrarian Party, the Party of Economic Reforms, and the Socialist Party, all of which have close links to Rakhmon’s regime.
The Communist leader called the poll a "farce," but said there was no point in challenging the results.
The Central Electoral Commission declared the vote valid, claiming that over 87 percent of the four-million-strong electorate had turned out at 3,209 polling stations around the country.
Tajikistan has never held a vote deemed free or fair by independent observers, and this one was no different.
Tajikistan’s authoritarian government has enlisted the support of the state-appointed clergy ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary vote.
“We have to vote for those whose work has achieved results,” reads a sermon the government distributed to imams ahead of Friday prayers on February 27. “May God protect our head of state, who has devoted himself to saving our nation and delivering us from our troubles.”
The sermon, seen by EurasiaNet.org, was prepared by the state-run Council of Religious Affairs, which manages all of Tajikistan’s mosques, vets and pays all imams. As instructed, imams read the sermon at a number of mosques in Dushanbe today, a source in the capital told EurasiaNet.org. In the city’s central mosque, the source said, the imam paraphrased the sermon and highlighted long-serving President Emomali Rakhmon’s outstanding leadership qualities.
The sermon goes on to criticize the opposition. Although it does not name any parties, the target is clear: Tajikistan’s beleaguered and moderate Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), which the authorities have largely prevented from campaigning ahead of the March 1 election.
“Is it not this party that divided people? Is it not this party that brought you to Afghanistan [as refugees], bringing hunger, poverty and humiliation?” the sermon reads. It goes on to accuse the IRPT – which was born out of the 1997 peace treaty that ended Tajikistan’s civil war – of stockpiling weapons and seeking to return the country to civil war.
The only question to ask about Tajikistan’s upcoming parliamentary elections is whether the authorities will allow any opposition parties to win seats in the rubber-stamp body. A victory for the president’s party is guaranteed. But, just in case, authorities are making it almost impossible for anyone else to run.
Eight parties are fielding 288 candidates to contest 63 seats in parliament’s lower house on March 1. Tajikistan has never held an election judged free and fair by impartial observers.
During the previous election, in 2010, President Emomali Rakhmon’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 55 of the 63 seats. The only opposition party to enter parliament, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), won just two seats. The other seats went to members of the loyal opposition—parties that bestow on Tajikistan the trappings of democracy, but kowtow to the president.
For starters, the Central Electoral Committee disqualified over half of the IRPT’s 160 proposed candidates – including Rakhmon’s former math teacher – on the grounds they allegedly failed their mandatory Tajik language test. Meanwhile, the State Television and Radio Committee blocked the IRPT’s attempt to air their promotional videos on television. An official explained to Asia Plus that the studio that produced the clips is not registered.