Thursday, August 25, 2016


Qishloq Ovozi

The First 40 Days: Tajikistan's Year Of The Neighborhood, Village, And Town

This year is bound to be a difficult one for Central Asia. The big question is: How bad can it get? I decided to follow events, as 2016 started, as closely as possible to see not only what was happening but also to pay special attention to how the individual publics responded and what measures each government would take. I chose to look at the first 40 days of the year, hoping to get a glimpse of where the five countries are heading.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon helps launch two new Tajik TV channels on March 1.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon helps launch two new Tajik TV channels on March 1.
By Bruce Pannier

Coming out of 2015, Tajikistan’s economic situation was among the worst of the five Central Asian states and the security situation was becoming tenuous, largely through the fault of the Tajik government. The value of the national currency -- the somoni -- had dropped significantly; foreign investment, never large in the best of times, was drying up; and remittances to Tajikistan, the most remittance-dependent country in the world, dropped by more than one-third.

Parliamentary elections in March 2015, which many believed were rigged, deprived Tajikistan’s largest genuine opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), of its last places in the government. The government then moved quickly to ban the IRPT and have it declared an extremist group. There was an event the Tajik government termed a mutiny and an attempted coup just days before the country’s Independence Day in September. And fighting in northern Afghanistan moved to areas along the border with Tajikistan.

In his New Year’s address, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon emphasized security concerns and called for political vigilance. Tajikistan’s citizens met the first day of the new year with power rationing, as has been true since independence. State media were criticizing Iran for inviting IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri to the same late-December Islamic Unity conference in Tehran that state-sponsored clerics from Tajikistan attended.

On the first day of the new year, the somoni's exchange rate was 7.1101 to the U.S. dollar. On January 1, 2015, the rate was 5.3074 somonis to the dollar.

Foreign trade in 2015 dropped some 18 percent compared to 2014. The Tajik National Bank spent some $452 million in 2015 defending the somoni’s rate. Bank Chairman Jamshed Nurmuhammadzoda said at the end of January that migrant laborers from Russia had actually sent more rubles home in 2015 (4 billion) than in 2014 (3.9 billion). But Nurmuhammadzoda said due to the depreciation of the Russian ruble, the money sent back to Tajikistan was worth some 33 percent less than in 2014.

Remittances And Poverty

It appears less will be coming in 2016. Russia’s Federal Migration Service reported on January 12 that the number of registered migrant laborers from Tajikistan decreased in 2015 by 3.8 percent (totaling 862,321). Tajik Labor and Employment Minister Sumangul Tagoyzoda claimed 205,556 new jobs were created in 2015, but he admitted only 30 percent of those could be considered full-time positions.

Tajik authorities initiated a crackdown on currency speculation. The National Bank put out a statement reminding citizens they faced up to nine years in prison if caught engaging in this practice. On January 29, the prosecutor’s office in Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region said 358 people were charged with selling dollars at an inflated rate.

On February 3, authorities announced money wired from abroad would be paid out to recipients in Tajikistan in somonis.

By mid-January, prices for some basic goods such as flour, oil, and sugar were rising. At the end of January, the Dushanbe mayor’s office said it planned to offer interest-free credits to local merchants to prevent sharp price increases.

In mid-January, Global Hunger Index released figures showing about one-third of Tajikistan’s population was undernourished, by far the worst figure in the former Soviet Union. Tajik authorities rejected those findings. But in a related issue, Alimurod Islomzoda, the director of Tajikistan’s utility company, said on January 14 that only 57 percent of the population in the mountainous country had access to potable water. Islomzoda said it would take 85 years and some $2 billion to provide clean drinking water to Tajikistan’s entire population.

By the start of 2016, scores of IRPT members -- the government’s post-civil-war partners in peace for some 18 years, who had places in the government for nearly all that time -- had been detained.

On January 4, deputy IRPT leader Mahmadali Hayit was charged with 13 crimes, including murder, terrorism, illegal weapons possession, arms smuggling, and calling for the violent overthrow of the government. (Hayit and 15 other IRPT members went on trial on February 9.)

On February 8, the prosecutor’s office announced 199 people were being charged in connection with the alleged coup attempt in September 2015. Those charged were allegedly co-conspirators with former Deputy Defense Minister Halim Nazarzoda. According to Tajik authorities, Nazarzoda and his forces tried to stage an overthrow before being chased into the mountains, where most of the group’s members were eventually either killed or captured. The Tajik government has not offered much evidence to support the motives for this sequence of events.

President Rahmon referred to both groups in his January 20 address to parliament, saying that “the traitors of the Tajik nation and their foreign masters have forgotten that the honorable people of sovereign Tajikistan will not allow anyone to upset their secure and peaceful life anymore with the help of provocation and intrigues like in the 1990s.” It was unclear who these “foreign masters” were.

Citizens of Tajikistan continued to show up in Syria and Iraq, many among the ranks of the militant group Islamic State (IS). On January 24, Rahmon said there were some 1,000 of Tajikistan’s citizens in those two countries. Most were reportedly recruited while they were working as migrant laborers in Russia.

One who left from Tajikistan was Davlat Cholov, once a person of some importance in the Popular Front paramilitary group that sided with the government during the 1992-97 civil war. Reports from January 14 of Cholov’s presence in Syria were followed just days later by reports he had been killed there.

On January 11, parliament started reviewing a draft law that would make parents responsible for monitoring Internet sites their children visited so that young people would not be accessing sites with extremist content.

The 'Great Distractions'

There was fighting just across the border, where Afghan government forces battled Taliban militants and their “foreign” allies, some of whom wee reportedly from Central Asia, including from Tajikistan. So it was a bad time for Russia to pull some of its forces in Tajikistan away from the Afghan border. Russia’s 201st Division has been in Tajikistan since 1945, but on January 30, Russia announced it was downsizing its military presence in Tajikistan -- officially to make its forces in Tajikistan “more mobile,” though some suspect Russia’s worsening financial situation prompted the decision.

Russia vowed during January it would be there to help Tajikistan if needed; and at the start of February, large-scale military maneuvers involving some 50,000 Russian and Tajik troops were announced for March.

The “great distractions” were Rahmon’s trip to Saudi Arabia on January 2-5, where the president and some members of his immediate family made the Umra. Rahmon returned and on January 15 authorities announced citizens of Tajikistan had to be at least 40 years old to make the Hajj. Previously the minimum age was 35.

On February 1, Rahmon also renamed several towns and districts to give them Tajik names.

The bigger distraction was parliament’s January approval of a package of amendments to the constitution, which included striking the number of terms a president could serve, lowering the age of eligibility to be elected president from 35 to 30 (Rahmon’s son Rustam turns 29 in 2016), and outlaws any party based on religion. A referendum on those amendments was set for May 22.

The exchange rate of the somoni on February 1 was 7.8424 to the U.S. dollar. On February 9, it was 7,8398 somonis. At the start of January, the World Bank forecast that Tajikistan would see GDP growth of 4.8 percent in 2016 and 5.5 percent in 2017.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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