DUSHANBE -- A newly established publishing house in the Tajik capital has been awarded a lucrative government contract to print more than 1 million copies of a history book after a dubiously conducted tender by the public procurement agency.
The firm, Modern Publishing, won the contract despite asking for more than 25 times as much money than the bid of runner-up Er-Graf, a reputable firm known in Dushanbe for high-quality work and competitive prices.
Er-Graf had offered to publish the book for about $435,000 -- just a fraction of the nearly $13 million bid by Modern Publishing.
The public procurement agency’s decision to award the contract to Modern Publishing didn’t appear to make sense until an investigation by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service found that the company is linked to Shamsullo Sohibov, the wealthy son-in-law of President Emomali Rahmon.
Like many other relatives of the president, Sohibov is known for having used the family’s influence to amass immense wealth in Tajikistan -- one of the poorest former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Rahmon has been in power since 1992.
RFE/RL’s investigation revealed that relatives were involved in every step of the process.
How It Started
In December 2019, Rahmon ordered the government to publish a book titled The Tajiks: Prehistory, Ancient, And Medieval History.
The book was written by Bobojon Ghafurov, a 20th-century Tajik statesman and historian. Originally published in Moscow in 1972, it is enormously popular in Tajikistan, where it is considered to be one of the most accurate interpretations of the nation’s history.
Rahmon ordered the government to publish 1.6 million copies of the book and distribute them free of charge to each household in Tajikistan.
His office said at time that the president’s “patriotic” initiative was meant to raise the awareness of young Tajiks about their own history, culture, and civilization.
Two months later, on February 21, the public procurement agency announced an open tender for publishing companies to compete for the contract.
The government allocated about $13.5 million to carry out Rahmon’s instruction. That is a substantial sum in Tajikistan, a nation whose impoverished economy is ranked 144th in the world by the International Monetary Fund.
Documents obtained by RFE/RL show that bids were submitted by three private Tajik firms: Modern Publishing, Er-Graf, and Ganj.
Ganj failed to reach the final stage of the public tender after its bid of about $14 million was deemed too expensive.
Companies that belong to the president’s family win the majority of the tenders that take place in secrecy, with no transparency, far from the public eye.”-- Journalist Khairullo Mirsaidov
The documents show that Er-Graf offered to publish 1.6 million copies of the book for about $435,000, while Modern Publishing’s bid was nearly $13 million.
If the procurement agency had accepted the most competitive bid, Tajikistan could have spent the $12.5 million difference on projects desperately needed to help improve living standards in the country.
Instead, the money went to Modern Publishing, a firm that RFE/RL has traced to Sohibov, who is married to Rukhshona, one of Rahmon’s seven daughters.
The chairman of the procurement agency that awarded the contract is Sohibov’s brother, Zainullo Sharifzoda, although the siblings use different surnames.
The procurement agency’s website shows that Sharifzoda took over as chairman on February 14, just a week before the so-called “open tender” was announced.
Nothing about the online tender appears to have been “open” or competitive.
A representative from Er-Graf was unable to explain why that company failed to secure the contract. She was unaware that the firm of President Rahmon’s son-in-law had asked for and received $12.5 million more to do the job.
“I think perhaps the price we pitched was quite high,” she told RFE/RL.
RFE/RL has repeatedly attempted to contact the public procurement agency for an explanation about why a far more expensive bid from a firm with less experience was accepted. It has not responded.
Traced To President's Son-In-Law
Sohibov’s name is not mentioned in any documents presented by Modern Publishing. However, RFE/RL’s investigations traced Modern Publishing to a conglomerate controlled by Sohibov called Faroz.
Faroz representatives claim the conglomerate was shut down in 2019.
RFE/RL’s investigation found in December that dozens of Faroz’s business had, indeed, been dissolved. But dozens more continued to operate without formally using Faroz’s name.
Faroz’s vast portfolio has included firms involved in transport, construction, trade, banking, metallurgy, tourism and hospitality, health care, education, and media.
Modern Publishing is officially registered at Zarnisor Street 3, Firdavsi District, in Dushanbe -- the same address where several other Faroz businesses are located.
Those other firms include a driving school, a car service center, a gas station, and a fitness club.
Ganj -- the third publishing firm that took part in the tender -- is also registered at the same Dushanbe address. Ganj, which also belonged to Faroz, was officially launched in 2014. Its launch ceremony was attended by President Rahmon.
RFE/RL’s probe showed that Ganj was still listed as a publishing firm in February when the tender was announced. It is now listed as a defunct business.
Modern Publishing was registered on August 16, 2019, just a month before Faroz announced it was going to dissolve all of its businesses, including Ganj.
RFE/RL correspondents sought comment from Modern Publishing, but representatives of the company initially declined to reply.
However, several days after the investigative report was published in the Tajik language, the firm sent a letter to RFE/RL saying that the article wasn’t “accurate, realistic, and objective.”
The letter, signed by company director Salimov B.D. on October 23, also said the RFE/RL report “undermines” Modern Publishing’s “professional standing.” It claims the RFE/RL report provided false, incorrect, and one-sided information about Modern Publishing, but does not offer any concrete evidence to dispute the article.
Modern Publishing also claims the tender took place in a transparent and lawful manner.
“No parties who took part in the state tender have disputed the tender results in administrative argument or via court, and this also demonstrates that the tender was carried out according to Tajikistan’s laws,” the letter says.
In authoritarian Tajikistan, ordinary citizens rarely if ever engage in legal challenges against Rahmon or his family because they fear retaliation.
No One Stands A Chance
Shahobbiddin Shujo, a publisher with years of experience in Tajikistan, told RFE/RL that Modern Publishing and Ganj operated from the same location and used the same equipment, despite being registered as separate entities.
Shujo, the former head of the Bukhoro publishing firm in Dushanbe, also said publishing houses linked to Faroz have won the majority of tenders for lucrative deals on government contracts.
"Starting from various bank documents and forms to government contracts -- everything is being handed over to those publishing companies,” Shujo said.
So far in 2020, Modern Publishing has won all three public tenders that it has participated in.
The contracts have been offered by the Prosecutor-General’s Office, by the Finance Ministry, and by the State Traffic Safety Service.
Corruption is rampant in Tajikistan. The country was ranked 155th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Khairullo Mirsaidov, a prominent Tajik journalist and government critic, says public tenders in Tajikistan are not exempt from corruption.
“Companies that belong to the president’s family win the majority of the tenders that take place in secrecy, with no transparency, far from the public eye,” Mirsaidov said. “Some of the companies that got the contracts were established only days before the tenders took place.”
He notes that Innovative Road Solutions -- a firm linked to the president’s family that “came out of nowhere, without any experience or record” -- was awarded a major government contract to collect money from Tajikistan’s only toll road.
Mirsaidov says that when President Rahmon’s relatives take part in a tender, other companies don’t stand a chance.
Rahmon this month was reelected to another seven-year term in office through an election that has been criticized by observers for its lack of genuine competition.
Rahmon’s relatives control almost all major businesses in Tajikistan and also occupy important government positions.
The president’s eldest son, Rustam Emomali, chairs the Senate -- a post that positions him to become acting president if the incumbent becomes incapacitated. He also is the mayor of Dushanbe.
A brother-in-law of Rahmon named Hasan Asadullozoda, who formerly used the name Hasan Saadulloev, is thought to control a wide range of important businesses that include a major bank and a key airline.
The majority of the 9 million people who live in Tajikistan endure economic hardships that have worsened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.