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Plans For A New Airport Invite Speculation In Tajikistan

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon
Rumors are in the air in rural Tajikistan.

Danghara, a small town of 20,000 situated in Tajikistan’s southern lowlands, may not strike most observers as a likely spot to place a national capital. But locals are pointing to the start of work on a grand new international airport nearby to speculate that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon – a native of the area – intends to relocate his country’s seat of power to his modest hometown.

Their imaginations have been stoked by the rerouting of a major rail line that cuts through the planned site for the airport, which is slated to be the largest in Tajikistan. Danghara is located 150 kilometers from Dushanbe, the current capital and Tajikistan’s largest city, with nearly 700,000 residents.

The airport scheme is not the only reason Danghara’s residents are talking up their town as a possible successor capital. They point to other unusual capital projects that Tajikistan’s government has brought to the area, including a complete renovation of the town’s roads and extensive building construction. They also note that over the last 10 years, the government has steadily relocated families from the countryside to Danghara.

Townspeople from Danghara who spoke to RFE/RL’s Tajik Service were mostly enthusiastic boosters of the notion.

Taxi driver Said Akbar argued that Danghara’s topography gives it an advantage over mountainous Dushanbe.

“Danghara is a very good place; it is flat and provides enough land for a city to be expanded,” he said.

For now, Danghara officials are keeping mum on the topic. The town’s deputy mayor, Muhammadyusuf Shoev, told RFE/RL that “it’s not in my competency to talk about [the issue]. It’s in the competency of the provincial government and national government.”

But at least one government official close to Rahmon on the national stage has indicated his support for a change of capitals. Suhrob Shapirov, the former head of the Center for Strategic Research and a deputy in the Tajik parliament, told RFE/RL that he would support the move of the capital from Dushanbe to Danghara.

There are skeptics, including journalist Burhon Safari, who argue that Danghara would hardly make a suitable seat of government.

“It would require a huge amount of money and energy to make Danghara the capital,” Safari says.

And that does not take into account the local jealousies likely to be aroused by such a dramatic act of presidential nepotism. One resident of Khatlon Province who identified himself as Djamshed complained that “even now, people are saying that the president is doing more for his hometown than others.”

RFE/RL reported in 2010 that a local official in Danghara was requesting that state television reduce its extensive coverage of Danghara. The official said that the programming helped reinforce the widely held view that the president was lavishing money and praise on the town even as other parts of Tajikistan were neglected by the Rahmon government.

Central Asia is no stranger to abrupt changes in national capitals. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev raised eyebrows across the region and beyond when he moved his nation’s capital from Almaty to Astana in 1997. Astana, which means “capital” in Kazakh, was once known as Akmola. Located in Kazakhstan’s cold northern steppe, Astana’s population has grown quickly since its extreme makeover as a national hub, from just over 250,000 residents in 1999 to more than 700,000 today.

In Southeast Asia, Myanmar’s ruling cadre of generals took an even more radical approach when in 2005 they uprooted the capital from Rangoon to a newly built city, Naypyidaw. The move came virtually overnight as Myanmar’s bureaucrats were told to pack their bags and decamp to the new capital, erected quickly in a remote area of the country, 400 kilometers north of Rangoon. The timing of the switch was said to have been determined by an astrologer close to then-ruling general Than Shwe. International journalists have largely condemned Naypyidaw as a lifeless sprawl and a garish tribute to Burma’s former military leadership.

-- Charles Dameron in Prague, with Mumin Ahmadi in Dushanbe

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