When the president of Tajikistan earlier this year appointed his son to become mayor of the capital, Dushanbe, he urged him to be a listening and compassionate leader.
Going by Rustam Emomali’s first actions in office, the advice does not appear to have made an impact.
Emomali has set his sights on overhauling the city’s transportation system, but the efforts are generating much misery.
On April 12, Dushanbe received a consignment of 40 large-capacity buses manufactured by Turkey’s Andalou Isuzu. Another 25 units are to be delivered in the summer. The cost of buying all those buses has set the government back around 3.4 million euros — 85,000 euros a pop.
The first buses will begin their routes in Dushanbe of April 15.
In conjunction with bringing these buses into commission, Dushanbe authorities have also been stepping up efforts to stamp out the so-called “three somoni” taxis that many people use to get around. For the last five years or so, these informally run shared taxis have operated a little like buses, running along established routes around the center of the city and charging people three somoni ($0.35) per ride.
Since the “three somoni” taxis are not properly licensed, the drivers routinely engage in cat-and-mouse games with the police. The chase is getting a little more serious now and the stakes have been increased, with fines for illegally driving the taxis being hiked to 1,000 somoni.
The “three somonis” are not the only vehicles in the crosshairs.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan signed an agreement this week for flights to resume between the two countries for the first time in 24 years.
Uzbek news website Podrobno.uz cited Dushanbe international airport on November 30 as saying that that under the agreement there will be twice-weekly flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent serviced by Uzbekistan Airlines and Tajikistan’s Somon Air.
On the same day, an Uzbek charter plane made a flight to Dushanbe, setting the model for the way forward. The route is due to begin operating regularly in January.
Asia-Plus reported that both countries agreed on conditions for transit flights and air cargo traffic.
Air links between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were suspended in 1992 at Tashkent’s initiative as Tajikistan began its descent into several years of bloody civil conflict. The late President Islam Karimov had previously made tentative gestures toward restarting the flights, but those overtures were dashed by Tajikistan’s plans to build the Roghun hyrdropower dam, which Tashkent strongly opposed.
Observers note that initial passenger traffic is unlikely to be great, however, since a visa regime has been in place between the countries since 2001 — sign of how much mutual trust had deteriorated between the former Soviet republics.
Tajik journalist Muzafar Yunusov told EurasiaNet.org that he believed that unless the visa system was annulled, “flights would only be for a select few.”
A railroad linking Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, part of a regional project called the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, was inaugurated in an official ceremony on November 28 overseen by the leaders of both nations.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov described developing transportation infrastructure as a top priority for his government and that railway and highway bridges traversing the Amudarya River are also to be put into commission in the coming days.
The goal of the Lapis Lazuli Corridor is to see Afghanistan connected to Turkey, and consequently Europe, through transit nations Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia as part of a vision to relieve the country’s remoteness from lucrative trading routes.
Turkmenistan’s government portal cited Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as hailing the importance of the railway for international cooperation.
After a symbolic golden rail clamp was fixed into a place, a maiden consignment of 46 carriages crossed from Turkmenistan into Afghanistan.
The segment of newly inaugurated railroad stretches 88 kilometers from Atmyrat (formerly Kerki) in Turkmenistan to the Ymamnazar border crossing and ends in the Afghan settlement of Akina, the Turkmen state news agency reported. (Spelling for each of these locations vary wildly depending on transliteration or rendering). Two stations — Gulistan and Ymamnazar — have also been built from scratch along the route, the agency said.
Turkmenistan may have become a byword for slow-moving regional rail projects, but a long-planned link connecting the country and neighboring Uzbekistan to the Persian Gulf via Iran appears to have found momentum again.
At a “high level meeting” in Ashgabat on September 3, delegates from the three countries plus Oman and Qatar began ironing out details of a plan first agreed in April 2011, Trend.az reported. That meeting came just under a month after the Turkmen and Uzbek foreign ministers held talks on the project with their counterparts in Oman.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov first proposed the railroad in 2010. For his double-landlocked country, the project assumes a special significance. Some have noted that it could ease exports of Tashkent’s key cotton crop toward markets in the Middle East and beyond. Tashkent is particularly keen to facilitate trade ties with manufacturers indifferent to widespread evidence it uses forced labor to harvest its lucrative cash crop. Last year according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Uzbekistan produced 904,000 metric tons of cotton. Turkmenistan, which produced 327,000 metric tons over the same period, could also benefit from the line.
The idea of linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan by rail appears to have wheels once more, following reports earlier this year that the project was running short of steam.
Back in January, Turkmenistan went cold on the estimated $2 billion link, slated to be part financed by the Asian Development Bank. Ashgabat faulted Afghanistan and Tajikistan for not keeping the Turkmen leadership in the loop with regard to the route the railroad would follow. As EurasiaNet.org reported:
On January 29, the head of state-owned Tajik Railways, Amonullo Khukumatullo, announced that Dushanbe and Kabul had themselves decided on the route for the Afghan section of the rail. The announcement apparently caught Ashgabat by surprise because on January 31, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry protested that Khukumatullo’s declaration was "tendentious and absolutely unacceptable" and "counterproductive."
The Chinese Embassy in Bishkek has called on the Kyrgyz government to end a weeks-old protest that has blocked a strategic road and stranded over 300 trucks near Kyrgyzstan’s border with China. Protestors are demanding the release of a nationalist politician awaiting trial on embezzlement charges.
“Drivers don’t have enough food, the weather conditions threaten their vital security. The Chinese side is worried about the condition of its citizens and asks the Kyrgyz side to take the necessary measures to address the issue and assist in ensuring the safety of [Chinese] citizens,” Interfax quoted the Chinese Embassy as saying this week.
About a hundred protesters have been blocking the main road through southern Kyrgyzstan’s Alai region since May 27, demanding authorities move Kyrgyz parliamentarian Ahmatbek Keldibekov of the nationalist Ata-Jurt Party from pre-trial detention to house arrest. Keldibekov, who is charged with corruption dating to his time as head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Tax Committee, was arrested and stripped of parliamentary immunity last November. If found guilty, he faces more than 10 years in prison. He denies the charges, describing his arrest as politically motivated. Keldibekov had earlier lost his position as parliamentary speaker during a scandal that appeared to tie him to Kyrgyzstan’s most notorious mob boss.
Though Keldibekov’s supporters have rallied several times since his arrest, the ongoing roadblock is their most sustained effort yet to draw attention to his case.
Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have launched a direct railway linking their oil-and-gas-rich Caspian Sea regions, bypassing Uzbekistan. The new line promises to benefit "tens of countries" in the region, opening the remote areas to major markets, says Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan's state-run Kazinform news agency reports that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Nazarbayev opened the 869-kilometer stretch from Ozen in Kazakhstan to Etrek in Turkmenistan at their Bolashak-Serhetyak border crossing on May 11. The segment is designed to link up to the Iranian rail network.
"Not only will the new railway simplify exports of our goods but it will also attract transit shipments," Kazinform quoted Nazarbayev as saying at the opening ceremony. Reduced delays will offer the two sides “a significant competitive advantage."
Berdymukhamedov, who was in Kazakhstan on a state visit May 10 and 11, praised the new line, too. "Our project also means a connection to transport infrastructure in the eastern direction with access to such economic centers of global development as China, India and the Asia-Pacific," Kazinform quoted him as saying.
The two leaders also launched a new fiber-optic data line, which should link Kazakh networks with those of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, and Turkmen networks (such as they exist) with Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia via Kazakhstan.
Landlocked Central Asian countries are often burdened by broad transport rivalries and suspicions. While closely cooperating in building new export routes for their hydrocarbons, they often shy away from transport teamwork.
One problem for anyone seeking to foster regional integration in Central Asia (“New Silk Road” or otherwise) is the frequent border disputes between the countries involved. Uzbekistan, which abuts all the other Central Asia states, has been particularly uncooperative, often closing its border posts without notice, hampering trade and hurting economies around the region.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB), a multilateral lender, has announced it will grant $100 million to help people and goods cross one of those tricky borders. Much of the money will be used to repave a 113-kilometer stretch of road in Tajikistan connecting a major highway with an isolated valley leading to the border with Uzbekistan.
“Improvements to this road will increase regional connectivity, reduce transport costs, and strengthen competitiveness,” said Zheng Wu, a transport specialist at ADB’s Central and West Asia Department, in a September 13 press release. Part of the money will also be spent on upgrading infrastructure at the Sarazm border post on the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan frontier.
But that post has been closed for almost two years. Uzbekistan sealed it in late 2010, cutting Panjakent – a Tajik town in the valley, home to some 33,000 people – off from the Uzbek city of Samarkand, only 60 kilometers away.
The new road project, expected to begin later this year, will certainly help connect the isolated Zarafshan Valley with the rest of Tajikistan, and thereby with a new source for the goods and supplies local residents used to buy in Uzbekistan. At present, in winter Zarafshan’s access to the “mainland” is often restricted to irregular flights to Dushanbe.
Workers put the final touches on Almaty's new metro system just in time for Kazakhstan's 20th anniversary party.
Almaty commuters’ 23-year wait ended this week as their city’s metro finally slid open its doors, just in time for Kazakhstan’s 20th independence anniversary.
Construction began back in 1988, when Almaty was known as Alma-Ata and was capital of Soviet Kazakhstan. At that time the city’s population hit the one million mark, which gave it the right under Soviet regulations to its own underground network. Hard times after Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 halted work. Now the country is awash with cash from its vast natural resources and construction began again in recent years.
The gleaming stations, lavishly adorned with marble, granite and ornate statuary, are worthy of comparison with Moscow's magnificent 1930s terminals. At the moment only one line with seven stops follows Almaty's Soviet-era center, but plans are underway for a second line.
When I rode the metro home on Friday there were long lines at the three windows to buy tokens and pre-paid cards. The yellow plastic jetons look to have come straight out of Soviet central planning.
Will the metro wean the good people of Almaty off their car addiction or just divert passengers from other forms of public transportation? Kazakhstan's commercial capital has undergone a rapid transformation since Soviet times and its new business districts are far from the reach of the metro, so we may have to wait, again, until a new line is completed to see any noticeable effect on the city's notorious traffic congestion.
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