Villages in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan have been joined by an electricity transmission line that will bring power to 3,000 Afghans for the first time in their history.
A ceremony to commemorate the event was observed by representatives from the US Embassy and the Aga Khan Foundation, who jointly funded the project, and Tajik and Afghan government officials, a US Embassy said in a statement issued on May 31.
The tortuous road that snakes along the Panj River, which marks the boundary between Tajikistan’s Pamir region and Afghanistan, presents a scene of stark contrasts. Villages on the Tajik side receive steady supplies of electricity from Pamir Energy, an energy company founded in 2002 as a public-private partnership between the government of Tajikistan, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development and the International Finance Cooperation. When night falls, Afghan villages are largely plunged into darkness, while countless electric lights almost a literal stone’s throw away twinkle in the Tajik villages.
The US Embassy statement said that joining the Afghan villages to the electricity grid in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast
was completed with $1 million grant from USAID and a complementary $464,000 contribution from the Aga Khan Foundation.
“In addition to the newly connected villages, the project helped Pamir Energy upgrade its existing systems and infrastructure, laying the groundwork for further expansion and service improvement to customers on both sides of the Tajik-Afghan border,” the statement said.
Similar stories of cross-border cooperation are all too rare, but this precedent is a heartening change from the stories of violence and drug-trafficking more typically associated with the Afghan border.
With the referendum out of the way, Tajikistan is back to usual business: banning things.
On May 24, Education and Science Minister Nuriddin Said issued a decree abolishing the cherished tradition of the “final bell,” wherein graduating secondary school students celebrate their last day of class.
Terms ends this year on June 7, but instead of the usual merriment, students will simply attend class and then presumably be expected to forlornly file home.
According to Said, failure to enforce this new order will result in punitive measures against education ministry officials and headmasters.
Unaccountable as it may seem for a country’s whose educational system is so riddled with shortcomings, the final bell has become something of an obsession. Every year has brought new amendments and restrictions.
In 2007, the name of the final day was changed from “final bell,” as it is known across most of the former Soviet space, to “bell of maturity” and the date pushed back from May 25 to June 6. That provision was intended to dampen the ardor of revelry and was accompanied by a ban on parties in restaurants, whip-rounds for graduating students, gift-giving and mass outdoor gatherings.
Typically, the day begins at 8 a.m. with a 45-minute assembly at students bring balloons, dance and sing. Diplomas, medals and awards are handed out.
The ban on grand last-day celebrations is based in part, it would seem, on concerns that some parties can on occasion get out of control. Some students mark the day by riding in cars, often recklessly and great speed, around their neighborhoods and on occasion cause fatal accidents.
It has been an open secret for months that Tajikistan’s No. 2 bank is completely broke, but the lender has finally come out into the open with a plea for international assistance.
bne Intellinews reported on May 11 that Tojiksodirotbank this week discussed a possible cash injection with officials from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in exchange for a 50 percent equity stake.
Tojiksodirotbank chairman Pirzoda Tojidin told the financial news website that he had already met with EBRD top brass and agreed on an assistance program.
"We have another meeting with them [on May 12], but it remains to be seen if we can meet the EBRD's conditions,” Tojidin told bne Intellinews.
This marks the first time Tojiksodirotbank has admitted to its severe liquidity problems, which has been no mystery to anybody unlucky enough to have their savings in the bank.
The lender tried in vain to downplay insistent media reports about its difficulties in March, when it issued a statement attributing interruptions in its services to a switchover in its money-processing system.
“Short-term disruptions in the functioning of bank cards are possible. We apologize for the inconvenience,” the statement said.
Countless deposit-holders at Tojiksodirotbank remain unable to get their cash to this day, however.
Negotiations with EBRD to facilitate some kind of rescue package have been in the works for some months.
A state prosecutor in Tajikistan has demanded life sentences for opposition figures on trial for their supposed involvement in an alleged coup in September.
The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan’s official website, Payom.net, reported on May 11 that four of its leading members could be sentenced to life in jail, while members of the party’s political council face terms of between 16 and 30 years.
Only one person on trial, IRPT deputy chairman Zarafo Rahmoni, faces a slightly less draconian sentence of five years in prison.
IRPT stands accused of financing and organizing a purported attempt to overthrow the government that officials say was led by disaffected deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda in September.
The startling severity of the proposed sentences appears to be an attempt to frighten anybody even vaguely contemplating any form of dissent in the future. The most severe term handed down to a political opponent to date was reserved for Zaid Saidov, who was in 2013 sentenced to 26 years in jail, a term later extended to 29 years.
Nazarzoda was reportedly killed in a gunfight with government forces on September 16. Senior IRPT members were arrested later that same month.
The trial was held behind closed doors, journalists were officially denied access to the hearings and informally warned to avoid even referring to the case. Even lawyers for the IRPT members were themselves jailed after taking up the case.
Earlier this month, Nazarzoda’s 28-year old son, Bahtiyor Nazarov, was sentenced to 22 years in jail, also for alleged involvement in attempts to overthrow the government.
Tajikistan has climbed down on recent proposals to abolish Slavic-sounding surnames following outraged reactions from members of parliament in Russia’s State Duma.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Ozodi, on April 29 cited the deputy head of the Tajikistan’s civil registration service, Jaloliddin Rahimov, as saying that a new law would spell an end to surnames ending in -ov, and even the -ovna and -ovich suffix for patronymics. The provision, which seems to have been specifically targeted at phasing out Slavic-style family names, is part of plans to inculcate greater national pride.
President Emomali Rahmon led the way in 2007 by ditching the old form of his surname, Rahmonov.
Rahimov, whose own surname is notably furnished with the -ov suffix, said that officials would have “clarifying conversations” with people wanting to keep their names unchanged.
“If the situation doesn’t change, then within 10 years our children will be split into two groups — one will be proud of their Tajik names, and the others will have foreign names,” said Rahimov.
As a rule, Tajik surnames end with the suffixes -i, -zod, -zoda, -on, -yon, -ien, -yor, -niyo or -far.
The surname rule fits into a broader pattern of fiddling while Rome burns as authorities busy themselves indulging in petty bans as the country descends into economic ruin.
In January, the lower house of parliament voted to make it illegal to give babies non-Tajik names or to seal nuptials without a medical certificate. The language and terminology committee at the Academy of Sciences drew up a list of 4,000 suitable names to make sure wayward parents do not try to endow their children with names like Sang (Stone), Safol (Ceramic), Zog (Crow) and Gurg (Wolf).
Rights groups have pressed Tajikistan to unconditionally release lawyers who were jailed after taking on cases of behalf of political opposition figures.
Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said in a statement on May 4 that the intimidation of rights lawyers has become commonplace in Tajikistan and even extended to the lawyers’ relatives.
“The Tajik government is tightening the screws on lawyers it deems trouble, locking up those who represent the opposition alongside its political foes,” HRW Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow said in the statement. “Each day these lawyers spend behind bars is a disgrace and brings shame on Tajikistan’s judicial system.”
In some cases lawyers have been targets of death threats.
The escalation of pressure against the legal profession intensified following the liquidation of the country’s only remaining viable opposition force, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Almost all the party’s leading figures were arrested in the wake of a purported attempted coup d’etat in early September. Lawyers agreeing to represent the IRPT leaders were immediately targeted for arrest in flimsily fabricated cases.
“Since 2014, Tajik authorities have arrested or imprisoned at least five human rights lawyers — Shukhrat Kudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhkamov, Dilbar Dodojonova — and Firuz and Daler Tabarov, sons of Iskhok Tabarov, another prominent lawyer,” HRW and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee noted in their statement.
Zokirov has since been released, but all the rest are still imprisoned. He and Kudratov represented government critic Zaid Saidov, who has been serving a 26-year jail sentence since late 2013.
The US Ambassador to Tajikistan this week attended the launch of a new printing press intended for the use of the country’s would-be independent media, which has in fact almost all but disappeared.
If one recently published article is anything to go by, however, the only things to be printed freely in Tajikistan these days are anti-opposition screeds.
Ambassador Elisabeth Millard unveiled the press on April 27 alongside Munim Olamov, the secretary general of the Media Alliance, which is comprised of 12 media organizations, and the general director of Imruz News daily newspaper.
As Millard explained, US financial support for creating the press was intended to promote a free media.
“Freedom of expression is one of our country’s core values, and one that we promote in Tajikistan. We sincerely hope that through the use of this printing press, your news agencies will prosper and access to information in Tajikistan will increase as more people are able to regularly read your newspapers,” Millard said, according to a US Embassy press release.
And what sort of information will the public be able to access exactly?
One article that appeared in a supplement inside an edition of Imruz News only days before the printing press opening is highly indicative.
In the piece, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda launches a phenomenal tirade against the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which has been liquidated and had almost its entire leadership stuck behind bars.
Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Russian officers take place in the opening ceremony, in Tajikistan, for the CSTO joint exercises "Poisk 2016" (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have wrapped up their first-ever joint military reconnaissance exercises in Tajikistan where they "eliminated" a make-believe ISIS commander who was plotting to seize power in Central Asia.
The exercises took place in Tajikistan's Romit Gorge, where -- incidentally -- Tajikistan security forces last year killed a rogue general who had mutinied and whom Dushanbe (unconvincingly) claimed was part of ISIS. They involved 1,500 military intelligence officers from Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
The primary purpose of the exercise seemed to be to work out joint operations of the CSTO countries' reconnaissance units and equipment (i.e. the forces that allow armed forces to locate and target enemy units). In one phase, for example, helicopter crews dropped paratroopers close to enemy formations and cut off their lines of communication. In another, they used their electronic reconnaissance equipment to target enemy communications points.
Tajikistan industry’s visiting card: That was how President Emomali Rahmon once described aluminum producer TALCO.
But things are looking a bit grim for the company at the moment with the news that it has had to lay off 607 employees, equivalent to 7 percent of the entire workforce, because of low global prices for its product.
Reuters news agency on April 19 cited TALCO press secretary Igor Sattarov as saying that 8,200 workers would be left at the company after the cutback.
Although the loss of employment will come as a massive blow to the laborers affected, the cutback is still quite a bit short of the 2,000 job cuts called for international consultants. Sattarov said TALCO instead opted for a “mitigated plans for the staffing optimization” and has put a number of people on unpaid leave.
International aluminum prices are currently hovering around $1,600 per ton, which marks something of a recovery from the lows seen last year, but still falls short of a figure that would make TALCO seriously profitable.
Wanting to help TALCO out of a tight spot, the government in November granted the company licenses to develop two gold deposits in the northern Sughd province, Konchoch and Chulobi. Usage rights over the deposits will extend to 25 years.
Tajikistan has slipped 34 places in the media rights group Reporters Without Borders annual index in a stark reflection of the country’s intensifying assault on political freedoms this past year.
Tajikistan now stands 150th out of 180 positions.
“On the pretext of combatting terrorism, the government has eliminated the political opposition and is stepping up pressure on the remaining independent media. Interrogation by intelligence officers, intimidation and blackmail have become part of the daily fare of independent journalists. Surveillance of communications is now routine, while the blocking of the main news websites and social networks is virtually permanent.” RSF said in a commentary on Tajikistan to go with the index.
By virtue of the state pressure against reporters, few instances of intimidation gain public attention as even the few remaining independent-minded outlets increasingly exercise robust self-censorship.
Little appears to have improved since the visit in March of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to freedom of expression, David Kaye, who spoke of his concern that instability in Afghanistan was serving as a smokescreen for repression.
“I recognize that there is a serious security problem in this part of the world, in particular in Tajikistan and in this neighborhood. But I’m afraid that the security situation has been used as a pretext, as an excuse, to crack down on freedom of expression, whether in the media or in civil society,” Kaye told a press conference at the conclusion of his visit in Dushanbe.