Tajikistan: Forced Rogun Payments Sowing Discontent Among Impoverished Tajiks
Tajik authorities appear intent on redefining the concept of volunteerism. Under the guise of public spirit, the government is using a variety of methods to compel citizens to contribute funds to the construction of the long-stalled Rogun Dam.
Ostensibly, Dushanbe is asking for voluntary contributions, but local observers say that those who ignore the government's entreaties do so at their own risk. "This is not optional," said a political analyst in Dushanbe. "You sacrifice part of your salary - which, in any case, is very modest - or you're in trouble with your boss."
Over the past two months, thousands of individuals have been forced to "voluntarily" donate to Rogun, or to work an extra few days gratis. Some have had Rogun payments withheld from their salaries. The government also has resorted to sending out text messages urging the recipients to donate. Given the government's recent history of financial malfeasance, coupled with the stressed state of the Tajik economy, the "voluntary donation" initiative is fostering indignation among the population, some local observers say. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
With parliamentary elections slated for late February, authorities are now taking a new tack - one that has a less coercive feel to it. Starting on January 6, Tajiks - and only Tajiks - will be able to purchase shares in the enterprise. "The Day of Solidarity for the Construction of Rogun," with festivities to promote the virtues of shareholding, will be celebrated in Dushanbe to mark the occasion. Some media outlets have launched contests for the best poems and songs venerating Rogun and its benefits to the ailing Tajik economy. President Imomali Rahmon's administration sees the completion of Rogun as vital for Tajikistan's future economic well-being. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In his New Year's address, Rahmon said 2009 would be remembered as the year "we speeded up the construction of our country's crucial facility, the Rogun hydroelectric power plant, which will extricate our country from difficulties with electricity in the near future."
It remains unclear if the government will try to coerce as many citizens as possible to obtain Rogun shares. What is clear is that the project is a shaky bet to pay off shareholders. The government is keeping information about Rogun's current status under wraps. Cost estimates to complete the project vary dramatically - ranging from $2 billion to $6 billion. Officials are also not being forthcoming with an accounting on expenditures to date.
Despite the paucity of information surrounding the project, officials are expecting "donations" from the general public to continue. According to the city administration's press service, "it is estimated that residents of Dushanbe will transfer $125 million to the special Rogun construction account before the end of March 2010; and by the end of 2010 the government will collect $150 million."
Dushanbe university students told EurasiaNet that the fixed rate for donations by medical and polytechnic students has been set at 100 somoni (about $23) regardless of financial ability.
A professor of the Russian-Tajik Slavic University said that the university administration deducted the amount of "one working day" from faculty salaries in November. In December administers promised to deduct 4 percent from the professors' monthly salaries. Moreover, university administrators have indicated that professors will be expected to keep making substantial contributions to the project.
Speaking at a press conference in early December, Rakhmatillo Zoirov, the leader of the opposition Social-Democratic Party (SDPT), questioned the government's fundraising methods, describing them as "immoral."
"The government should not rely upon people's money since most of the citizens simply cannot afford" the burden, Zoirov said. "It is unlikely that certain well-heeled individuals would invest their funds in this project for they are not sure about good profits."
It is not the first time the government has sold shares in hydropower projects, and past examples aren't promising. Shares sold during a similar fundraising campaign for the Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant a few years ago have yet to yield dividends. That plant is now embroiled in a protracted financial dispute with the state energy monopoly, Barki Tojik. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
It is unclear whether Rogun shares will legally transferable. Since Rogun, the Nurek hydropower plant, and the Tajik aluminum company Talco are state-owned, they cannot be considered joint-stock companies, and thus cannot float shares, Zoirov asserted.
On December 16, Tajik MPs approved legislation allowing vehicle owners to tint their windshields for a fee. (Previously, the practice was forbidden.). President Rahmon has suggested that the fees from the measure could be applied to the Rogun project. That suggestion has sparked satirical responses from local political observers. One suggested allowing students to forsake their obligatory uniforms for a fee. Another proposed raising money by "ransoming" exceptions from other idiosyncratic laws, such as a limitation on the number of attendees at weddings, a regulation the president introduced in 2007.