When top officials are fired in Tajikistan, it is usually with reassuring formulations about the person in question being moved to another job or retiring. The absence of such language typically suggests a fall from grace that in some instances serves as a prelude to a criminal prosecution.
So eyebrows were raised this week when President Emomali Rahmon on February 21 abruptly ordered the dismissal of US-educated deputy finance minister Umed Latifov without indicating what his fate is to be. The development had been linked with the much whispered-about elite infighting believed to be taking place over the country’s largest industrial asset — Talco aluminum manufacturer.
Latifov had not been in the job for long and was appointed only in July 2016. Before that, he was deputy head of the National Bank, a post he filled in May 2015.
His presumably lucrative background of working in US investment vehicles made his decision to return to his home country something of a surprise at the time. According to his LinkedIn profile, he completed a finance degree at Arizona State University and later obtained an MBA from Stanford University. He later dabbled in online startups and worked in various capacities at several investment firms.
In the teeth of opposition from the public, the government in Kazakhstan has revived costly plans to build what it is billing as a “national pantheon” — a mausoleum to house the remains of the country’s great and good and dead.
Finance Minister Bakhyt Sultanov announced on February 21 that just one phase of the project alone will set the state coffers back $5.3 million. The final cost will likely be much greater, possibly running into the hundreds of millions, if the earlier blueprint was anything to go by.
A spot has been allocated for the mausoleum in a location around 20 kilometers outside the capital, Astana, next to an existing building housing the tomb of 18th-century Kazakh warrior prince Kabanbai Batyr. Sultanov was unable to offer more specifics, inviting reporters instead to put their questions to the mayor’s office.
Decisions of who is to be buried at the national pantheon are to be taken by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. The intended site for the mausoleum is already the resting place to numerous departed public figures whose importance was acknowledged by the president.
In 2013, Nazarbayev decreed that the first person to be buried there should be the late member of parliament Oral Muhamedjanov — “for his massive contribution to the development of the state.” Kazakhstani poetess Fariza Ongarsynova; Sayahat Konakai, the younger brother of Nazarbayev’s wife; former Supreme Court chairman Maksut Narikbayev; and writer and scholar Abish Kekilbayev are among others buried there. The site also allows for Christian burials, like that of Sergei Dyachenko, a former deputy speaker of the lower house, who died last year.
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.
As had been widely anticipated, Turkmenistan’s president has not only won the presidential election, but has done so with a stratospheric majority, despite his nation’s sinking economy.
In light of the intensely authoritarian nature of the country, it is no surprise that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov should have got 97.69 percent of the vote. And the turnout was high too.
“The 97.27 percent turnout indicates a high degree of civic involvement by the population and demonstrates its conscious desire to participate directly in democratic reforms in Turkmenistan,” an election official was quoted as saying by the state news agency.
The figures are grimly comical and news websites run by exiled Turkmens have argued convincingly that they are deeply fraudulent. It is perhaps worth dwelling upon them in passing for the intended symbolism, however.
Berdymukhamedov has, going by the official election figures, become only more popular with every passing election.
In February 2007, in the wake of the sudden death of President Sapamurat Niyazov, a still-diffident Berdymukhamedov was declared the election winner with a relatively modest 89.2 percent of the vote, and a 95 percent turnout. He bettered that performance by getting 97.14 percent of the vote, with a 96.7 percent turnout, in February 2012.
And since the size of the electorate has, according to official figures, risen from around 2.6 million in 2007 to 3.22 million people registered for this weekend’s vote, so that represents not just a proportional increase in would-be favorability, but also a hefty jump in outright support.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have unveiled some heartening news on the economic front with the announcement that 20,000 jobs are be created at the Tengizchevroil energy venture.
But that burst of optimism comes just as dozens of workers have reportedly gone on strike for higher pay at the very same project.
Deputy Labour and Social Protection Minister Birzhan Nurymbetov said on January 30 that the oil field joint venture, which is 50 percent controlled by US energy corporation Chevron, is an example of the government’s long-term investment agenda.
Foreign investments generated by this project have a multiplier effect and enable the development of business and the improvement of social wellbeing, Nurymbetov’s ministry stated in a press release.
“According to Tengizchevroil, [future expansion at the project has created] provides employment for 10,500 people — of those, 9,400 people are local staff, which accounts for 90 percent of all workers on the project in Kazakhstan,” Nurymbetov said.
Narymbetov said the government expect 20,000 more jobs to be created by expansion of the Tengizchevroil project, and that 18,000 of those jobs would go to Kazakhstani citizens.
“Tengizchevroil will assume the responsibility of teaching and training Kazakhstani personnel,” he said.
Workers would come from all over Kazakhstan, Narymbetov said.
But even as government officials are boasting of future job-creation, those already employed by Tengizchevroil are complaining that they are not paid enough.
Uzbekistan has embarked on a campaign to popularize the rearing of chickens as a way to combat poverty in rural areas.
The state broadcaster reported in its evening bulletin on January 29 that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has given orders for a large and high-tech bird farm to be built in the Khorezm region, some 800 kilometers west of the capital, Tashkent. The farm will churn out 51 million eggs and breed 1.5 chicks every year, the news program predicted.
This is the first firm result of an initiative announced by Mirziyoyev earlier in the month as he was touring the city of Nukus, in the capital of the economically depressed Karakalpakstan autonomous region. Chickens, Mirziyoyev predicted, will be the key to solving poverty in Uzbekistan.
“Every family in rural areas should keep at least 100 egg-laying hens. From that amount, you could get at least 50 eggs daily. Suppose a family keeps 10 eggs for itself and sells the other 40, then we would have no more poor people any more,” Mirziyoyev said in a speech broadcast on state television.
Not that officials in Uzbekistan like to talk about the poor. Instead they prefer a euphemistic term meaning “disadvantaged.” Minimum salaries are at present around 150,000 sum per month (around $45 at the official rate).
Mirziyoyev has urged civil servants and bankers to assist the chicken program in any way that they can by enabling credits to families that take up the challenge.
According to state-produced statistics published on January 1, Uzbekistan’s stock of fowl stood at almost 66 million heads and the country produced around 6 billion eggs last year.
Mir-i Arab Madrasah in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo: Asian Development Bank via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/eLwt7i
Uzbekistan has performed a shock about-face on its tourist visa policy by cancelling plans to allow citizens of 27 countries to travel to the country visa-free as of April.
A document posted on the government legislation portal Lex.uz on January 9 stated that the visa-free regime will only come into force in 2021. Nations eligible for visa-free travel under the now-cancelled initiative had included the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Canada. Citizens of 12 countries, which included the United States, were also to be granted visa-free travel provided they were 55 years and over.
It is not wholly clear what has motivated this sudden change of heart on a policy, unveiled in early December, that appeared to indicate Uzbekistan was bracing to pursue a line of greater openness to the outside world. The decree making the announcement claimed it was motivated by a desire to pursue a "sustainable and balanced development of tourist activity” and create conditions to “ensure the safety of life and health of foreign tourists.”
The zig-zagging in decision-making suggests, however, that even with the increasing consolidation of freshly elected President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, tensions within the ruling elite remain in place.
News of this reversal will be greeted with dismay by the country’s tourist operators, who were heartened by Mirziyoyev’s stated intent to overhaul the leisure sector.
As part of an agenda of economic liberalization, Mirziyoyev’s government is looking to diversify the economy, attract greater foreign investment and, perhaps most importantly, transform Uzbekistan’s image as an isolated and inward-looking hermit nation.
The yawning, decades-long divide between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will get that little bit narrower next week when a senior Uzbek delegation travels to Dushanbe for talks on trade and economic cooperation.
The delegation will travel to Tajikistan on December 26 and be led by Uzbek deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov, whose recent removal as finance minister appears for now to signal his transition to a role as the lead on development of Uzbekistan’s external economic ties.
Talks will focus on reopening railway and road links that have now been closed for several years. At the heart of the historic disaccord is Tajikistan’s plan to build a giant hydropower dam that Uzbekistan could threaten its access to vital irrigation water. Tashkent has tried by multiple means — mainly by imposing a de facto transit embargo — to hinder progress on that dam and force Dushanbe to back down.
Dushanbe-based news website Asia Plus reported that the Uzbek-Tajik intergovernmental commission convening in Dushanbe will agree on the reopening of specific railway and road links, suggesting the talks may go beyond an rhetoric exchange of goodwill messages. The website cited unnamed Tajik government sources as saying the two sides will agree on the opening on new border crossings.
This comes on the heels of an announcement in November that flights are set to resume between the two countries in January for the first time in 24 years.
The game of pass the parcel with one of Tajikistan’s rare industrial success stories has now led to a promising fertilizer plant being taken over by Chinese investors.
The lower house of parliament on December 14 ratified a deal between Tajikistan and China for Henan Zhong-Ya holding group to assume control of OAO Azot in a deal that will require the company to invest $360 million over the coming three years.
All in all, the deal is a sweet one for Henan Zhong-Ya. Azot will enjoy a tax holiday for a six-year period as it gradually ramps up production. The plant specializing in the production of carbamide, or urea, an organic compound used in fertilizer.
The plant has been standing idle since it was nationalized at the expense of Ukrainian tycoon Dmytro Firtash in 2014.
For the first 10 years of resumed operations, the plant will be 51 percent owned by the Chinese, while the remainder will be held by the Tajik government. The general director of the company will be Chinese.
Annual demand for carbamide in Tajikistan is around 360,000 tons, an amount it now imports at a cost of $50 million. The plant, which is situated in the southern Khatlon region, is slated to reach annual output of 200,000 tons of carbamide within the first two years.
Under the bilateral agreement, 30 percent of profits will go to the Tajik state and the rest to the Chinese partner.
There is a requirement, however, that half the employees must be Tajik nationals at the start to operations, and that this number must increase to 90 percent within 18 months.