Tajikistan’s all-powerful communications regulator, which is run by a relative of the president by marriage, may be adding another string to its bow by becoming a monopolist provider of courier services.
Few in Tajikistan rely on traditional postage, since it is vastly easier to turn to friends and relatives to carry parcels in person when the need arises. Nongovernmental groups, embassies and other international organizations have, however, typically relied on trusted companies like DHL, UPS, TNT and Pony Express.
That changed on June 7, when the Communications Service suddenly and without warning physically sealed the offices of all those companies. The official explanation, as provided through the Khovar state news agency, was that under newly adopted legislation, companies providing postal services now need to obtain operating licenses.
“The law must be upheld. If the aforementioned companies apply with the communications service for a license, once they receive a positive response, their activities can resume,” said Ilhom Atoyev, deputy head of the service.
Easier said than done.
A representative from one of the companies told EurasiaNet.org that they sent a license application on June 9 but they have not yet heard back. The same company also sent a license application back in March, only to have its request turned down within a week.
Sources working for the courier companies have revealed that the Communications Service had demanded to be given lists of customers, purportedly for security purposes.
“They wanted the list of customers to check who is sending post to whom, and whether they have any connection with terrorism. Our management had no choice but to provide their client list,” an employee with one courier company told EurasiaNet.org.
But once the agency had obtained the lists, it began calling the same customers to ask if they wished to use their services instead.
It is worth clarifying here that in addition to regulating the industry, the communications service also provides commercial services through the state-owned Pochtai Tojik (Tajik Post Office). As a member of the Universal Postal Union, Pochtai Tojik ostensibly offers courier deliveries through its involvement in the international Express Mail Service.
“We have had [Express Mail Service] since 2005,” an employee with Pochtai Tojik told an EurasiaNet.org correspondent posing as a customer. “To make sure that your packages don’t remain undelivered, we would suggest you work through our postal service. We have arrangements with 192 countries and our prices are low.”
The Pochtai Tojik employee admitted that “we are not as fast as DHL, but our prices are lower.”
And even that is not entirely correct.
While Pochtai Tojik prices for deliveries to nearby countries are more competitive than those of the big courier companies, anything intended for distant locations will set customers back as much as anything companies like DHL charge.
The courier companies may hope that they can reopen, but that eventuality is far from certain.
After all, back in March, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, was reporting that Pochtai Tojik is now offering parcel-tracking services. That was made possible by assistance by technical assistance from the Universal Postal Union, which even provided their Tajik colleagues with 24 sets of a barcode readers.
Back then, Pochtai Tojik was claiming it was more than capable of competing with the big players. But if the communications service has anything to do with it, it may not need to.
The communications service is the fiefdom of Beg Zukhurov, who is related to President Emomali Rahmon by marriage. Zukhurov remains best known for administering bans of suspects websites. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, independent news sources and even video-hosting services like YouTube are often rendered unavailable without explanation.
Zukhurov has also spearheaded the arbitrary and haphazard intensification of regulation of Tajikistan’s mobile communications industry, which used to be one of the most promising in the region, but has now been overtaken by all but even more hermit-like Turkmenistan.