When Uzbekistan suddenly decided this week to deny permission for an airline from Tajikistan to land in its capital, it might have safe to expect an outcry.
Privately owned Somoni Air was due to carry a couple dozen paying passengers for the February 20 flight to Tashkent — the first along this route in 25 years — when it learned permission had been revoked.
Tajikstan’s Asia-Plus reported on January 21 that Uzbek authorities fired off an incensed letter laying all the blame at the feet of the Tajiks.
The letter argued that Somoni Air had filed a request to effect charter flights and not regular scheduled flights. It also claimed it only received the official paperwork authorizing the route on February 19, one day before the flight. That gave the insufficient time to adopt a decision, as the matter had to be considered by security services and air defense officials, the Uzbek letter stated.
And finally, the Uzbek authorities said Somoni Air still had no branch office in Tashkent and that the sale of tickets was accordingly not possible.
This is high bunkum even by the normally lofty standards of Central Asian officialdom.
A date for the Somoni Air maiden flight had been set weeks ago and widely advertised by media in both countries, which makes nonsense of the implication that Uzbek oversight bodies were somehow caught by surprise. As to the sale of tickets, Somoni Air has a website through which that can be done, so even this is unconvincing grounds for rescinding permission to operate. In any event, it is unclear how Somoni Air’s commercial strategy is supposed to be of any interest to Uzbek authorities.
The first regular scheduled flight between Uzbekistan and Dushanbe in 25 years was unexpectedly nixed on February 20 in an embarrassing anticlimax after weeks of anticipation.
Privately owned Tajik carrier Somoni Air said in a statement of apology to its customers that the flight was cancelled on the instructions of the airport in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
It is not clear what lies behind the cancellation of the flight and this threatens to descend into an all-too familiar round of mutual accusations.
State-run carrier Uzbekistan Airlines has blamed Somoni Air for the impasse.
“Somoni Air did not submit form “R,” which lists all the requisite conditions for completing an international flight. That is the main reason for this flight being cancelled,” a spokesperson for the airline told EurasiaNet.org.
The company promised a full explanation would be posted on its website by the end of the day, but that statement failed to materialize by the promised time.
An estimated 26 passengers had been due to travel on the flight.
Tajik news website Asia-Plus reported that disappointed customers were reimbursed or given tickets for the flight from the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe, to Khujand. In the absence of a direct link to Tashkent, many people in Tajikistan traveling to Uzbekistan typically make their way to the northern city of Khujand and then cross the border overland.
It had all started so promisingly.
A trial flight between Dushanbe, and Tashkent was carried out on January 10. A total of 56 people, including Somoni Air representatives, journalists and regular passengers, flew on that occasion. The travelers were met with a great fanfare at Tashkent airport.
The president of Tajikistan’s son has only been mayor of the capital city for a few weeks and already life is improving.
In the old days, people traveling on public transport had little by way of mental stimulation beyond possibly staring blankly out of the window or reading a newspaper.
But now Mayor Rustam Emomali has instructed taxi and minibus drivers in Dushanbe to play musical paeans of praise to the country and, of course, President Emomali Rahmon himself.
Asia-Plus news website reported that the instructions were already being carried out on February 20.
One minibus driver said that they buy flash drives carrying patriotic duties from their own employers at 35 somoni ($4.50) a pop. City officials told Asia-Plus that the practice will soon be rolled out across all public transport vehicles.
The surge of patriotic song-writing followed the adoption of the 2015 law decreeing that Rahmon be officially designated “The founder of peace and leader of the nation.” That formulation, which is even more cumbersome in the original Tajik, is now used pretty much every time the president is referenced on state television. Beyond elevating Rahmon to para-demigod status, the founder of peace and leader of the nation law also granted the president de facto rule for life, since he will retain a degree of power even after or if he should ever step down.
It is not just the middle of the road, light entertainers that have volunteered (or been enlisted) to performs songs to flatter Rahmon. Hip-hop artists have got in on the act too.
A sudden shortage of dollars in circulation in Tajikistan has led to another dip in the value of national currency, the somoni.
At the start of the year, official figures showed the greenback trading at around 7.9 somoni. This week, currency exchange points were trading at just over 8 somoni to the dollar, but the US banknote was, in fact, hard to find at all.
The black market, which has come under intensified scrutiny in the past couple of years, was reportedly trading the US currency at around 8.30 somoni on February 17.
While major banks like Agroinvestbank, Tojiksodirotbank, Oriyonbank had no dollars to speak of, some smaller lenders had small amounts to go around, according to news website Asia-Plus.
Market watchers suspect that the reason for the sudden dollar crisis is linked to the recent effort by the government to recapitalize a number of distressed banks, which then proceeded to pay out account-holders who have been unable to withdraw their savings for several months. Worried about possible devaluations to the somoni, people getting their hands on that cash have quickly sought to convert it into relatively more secure dollars.
Tajikistan has mainly resorted to “administrative resources” to keep the currency on an even keel.
In December 2015, the National Bank ordered the closure of all unauthorized currency exchange points in the city. After that, only banks were able to perform foreign exchange operations. Anybody found violating this new arrangement could face jail terms of up to nine years. Also, banks are forbidden by law from selling somoni at more then 1.5 percent the rate established by the National Bank.
Screengrab from a promotional film produced by Tajikistan's aluminum giant Talco.
It is virtually axiomatic in Tajikistan that any major investor should, metaphorically speaking, expect to get their fingers burnt and then be forced to pay for a taxi to the hospital afterward.
Consider the long-running saga with Russian metals giant Rusal, which has after years of trials and tribulations finally left Tajikistan and with losses likely running into the dozens of millions of dollars.
Under a recently thrashed out deal, Tajikistan’s heavily indebted aluminum producer Talco has relieved Rusal of its two remaining assets in the country — the Sozidanie business center and the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Talco will pay Rusal around $150 million over a 10-year period, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported on February 14. A source familiar with the deal has told EurasiaNet.org that the foreign staff managing both facilities will leave the country, leaving Tajik personnel to take over.
Talks about the transfer of property had been going on for some time and likely turned a final corner in the last week of December, when Rusal chief executive Vladislav Soloviev traveled to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
Talco is controlled by Hasan Asadullozoda, brother-in-law of President Emomali Rahmon, so this is yet more of the country’s wealth falling into the hands of the ruling family. (That said, Asadullozoda is going through his own troubles with the rest of the family, so this is not quite as cozy as it may initially appear).
The transaction appears to put a definitive end to the long-standing row between Tajikistan and Rusal, which is owned by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska.
In the wake of the mayor of Tajikistan’s capital getting sidelined, his allies are now systematically being cleared out of jobs in and near the government.
On February 13, the executive committee of President Emomali Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party assembled and decided to remove six leading party apparatchiks.
The changes were effected at Rahmon’s behest.
Tajikistan-focused news website Akhbor cited an unnamed source in the party as saying the process is intended to rid the city hall of ex-mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev’s cronies. New appointees will reportedly instead be the cronies of the new mayor, who also happens to be son of President Rahmon — Rustam Emomali. (Tajik sons take the first name of their father as a second name).
The authorities are trying to cast Emomali’s ascendancy to the mayor’s job as a much-needed injection of energy. Rahmon in December declared 2017 the year of youth and in that spirit gave his 29-year old scion a job for which he has little obvious background.
Acting quickly, Emomali dumped the sitting mayoral press secretary and the head of the city television station, Poytakht. Then on January 16, he fired the head of Dushanbe’s public records department, Saidhomid Mahmudov, who is Ubaidulloev’s cousin.
On February 7, less than a month after losing his mayoral post, Ubaidulloev resigned his seat on the Dushanbe city council, as did his ex-city hall chief of staff, Firuz Ulmasov.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
A plane carrying paying customers, officials and reporters completed the first commercial flight between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for the first time in 25 years, signaling a hopeful new chapter in the two countries’ often-strained relations.
The plane departed the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, at 10 a.m. on February 10 and arrived less than an hour later in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
“The Tashkent-Dushanbe-Tashkent flight, which the peoples of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have awaited for 25 years, was made possible by the willingness of the two nations’ leader to meet halfway,” Tom Hallam, chief executive at Tajikistan’s privately owned Somon Air, was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti news agency.
Regular flights along the same route are scheduled to start from February 20.
Dushanbe-based news website Asia-Plus reported that only 14 tickets were sold for the maiden flight. Aside from paying customers, other fliers included aviation officials and journalists.
Asia-Plus quoted one passenger, Jamila Yusupova, as describing the flight as a momentous personal occasion.
“I am originally from Tashkent and back in the Soviet days I moved to Tajikistan together with my husband. And it has been 25 years since I have not been able to see my family. Now my brother and sister, who I haven’t seen for a quarter of a century, are waiting for me there,” she said.
Narmurad Rajabov, an ethnic Tajik living in the city of Bukhara, said his brother lived in neighboring Tajikistan. He said they had not seen one another for many years because of the difficulties entailed in securing a visa.
Weeks after the government in Tajikistan announced an ambitious bond issue to help finance a bailout for several struggling banks, prosecutors have decided to start investigating the lenders.
The four banks being audited by the General Prosecutor’s Office are Tojiksodirotbank, Agroinvestbank, Tojprombank and state-owned Amonatbank.
Another troubled lender, Fononbank, is being spared the treatment because it was already audited last year over suspicions that it was somehow collaborating with the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
RFE/RL’s Tajikistan service, Radio Ozodi, reported that checks on the four banks are set to last six months. A representative for the General Prosecutor’s Office, Hotam Nazarzoda, said that the operation was being carried out at the request of the government to establish that the lenders were not being “mismanaged.”
If this explanation sounds unilluminating, it may be by design. Prosecutors have refrained from explaining quite what they mean by “mismanagement” or why this should be a matter for them to investigate.
But one unidentified source told Radio Ozodi this was primarily a reference to the way in which the banks issue loans. The source explained that some banks have been known to accept doors, windows, cows and other livestock as collateral for credit, immaterial of whether the customer was ever likely to be able to repay their debt. This sort of liberal credit-giving has, in the opinion of the authorities, led to lenders being driven to the verge of collapse.
“Animals have the habit of dying, and sometimes they do it early. And there have been cases when an apartment worth $50,000 could be displayed as being worth $100,000. These is called unguaranteed collateral,” the source told Radio Ozodi.
An official investigation into how the 23-year old son of Tajikistan’s deputy prime minister plowed his Toyota Camry at speed into a public works vehicle, killing two people, has placed the blame on a technical fault in the car.
Ozodagon news website last week reported that representatives of the General Prosecutor’s Office have accordingly determined that there is no need to pursue a criminal case against Faromuz Saidov, the son of first deputy premier Davlati Saidov. Prosecutors said the accident was caused by a “technical problem during the manufacture of the car” and that there was no human factor at play.
General Prosecutor’s Office representative Sharif Habibulloyev gave no details about what particular defect might have caused a loss of control over the car. The accident claimed the lives of a 25-year old woman, Hilola Rahimova, who traveling in the car with Saidov, and a municipal employee who was at the time clearing away decorations erected to celebrate the Independence Day holiday.
Investigations into the accident, which took place on September 10, have taken five months to complete. On January 20, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda noted at a press conference that the findings of investigations have yielded some contradictory data, but he declined to elaborate further, saying the matter was being handled by the General Prosecutor’s Office.
Some details do not entirely appear to stack up. Authorities in Tajikistan enforce annual car inspections that would presumably reveal any serious technical shortcoming.