News of devastating earthquakes this month has echoed loudly in countries that share two distinct features with Turkey: active fault lines and cultures of corruption.
In Tajikistan, as word spread of Turkish police arresting contractors for flouting building codes and thereby possibly amplifying the tremors’ staggering death toll, many residents took to social media to vent their fears, concerned that their own codes have been routinely ignored during a building boom over the last decade.
The online chatter moved the government to call a press conference within two days of the quakes. There, Nizom Mirzozoda, the head of the Architecture and Construction Committee, claimed that Dushanbe’s new buildings can withstand earthquakes of up to 8.5 or 9 on the Richter scale.
It’s hard to say if that convinced people; the response has highlighted a lack of trust in the authorities. A Facebook post about the press conference, by Dushanbe’ leading independent news outlet, Asia Plus, attracted over 100 skeptical comments. “New developments have been popping up in Dushanbe like mushrooms. How can a rational person in this country rotten with corruption believe such claims?” asked one social media user. “I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. The old Soviet buildings perhaps could withstand earthquakes of such intensity but definitely not these new ones,” agreed another reader.
Attention to building standards feels ever more pressing, especially after a 6.8-magnitude tremor and several aftershocks hit on February 23 in the remote eastern mountains, though no damage was reported.
Corruption is such an everyday scourge in Tajikistan that many people take it for granted that building codes are designed only to enable officials to extract bribes.
So the second part of the government’s response is also being met with cynicism: Dushanbe has formed a committee that will re-examine its own construction standards, the state Architecture and Construction Committee announced on February 16, and test earthquake resiliency of new buildings in Dushanbe, Khujand, and Bokhtar – Tajikistan’s three biggest cities.
The special committee will include representatives of the Architecture and Construction Committee, the State Control Service for Architecture and Construction, the Institute of Geology and Seismology of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Department of Urban Planning Documentation. Their task is to inspect buildings erected since 2018, including those still under construction.
Authorities have not said how many buildings fall into this category, or what methods will be used to test their resiliency. Nor is it clear how long the group will operate, what are the punishments for code violations, or even why the group is necessary: After all, those same government bodies were responsible for ensuring building safety before the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
A government source, on condition of anonymity, confirmed the group had no defined purview yet. A representative of the Architecture and Construction Committee, speaking with Asia Plus, also could not answer many questions about the group’s mission.
After a moderate earthquake struck northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan in October 2015, the Architecture and Construction Committee urged the capital to halt new infill developments in the city; the appeal worked and scarcely any new development permits were granted during 2016. In 2017, the lower chamber of the Tajik parliament approved a draft law "On seismic safety" which mandated that new developments, and construction materials, be examined for seismic resistance.
The vagueness of the new special working group’s scope and Tajikistan’s endemic corruption – the country landed at 150 out of 180 in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index – are fueling speculation that this law and the new committee are merely PR stunts meant to assuage concerns and provide more vehicles for government officials to collect bribes in exchange for development permits. “They’re just going to shake down the developers, that’s all,” responded a reader to another Asia-Plus story on Facebook.
“What is [this working group] for? They’re just pretending to care, not like they’d tear down the new library, for example, even if it’s in total disrepair,” voiced another skeptic of a nine-story behemoth next to the presidential palace.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s an attempt to pacify people worried about Dushanbe’s redevelopment,” a former activist, who now lives abroad and asked not to be identified, told Eurasianet.
Since 2015, Tajikistan has undergone rapid urban redevelopment. In 2021, the country added 1.43 million square meters of real estate; in 2022, another 1.75 million went up. By comparison, in 2015, the figure was only 160,000 square meters. Dushanbe, once known for its neoclassical low-rises and quiet tree-lined avenues, has been transformed into a chaotic collection of glassy high-rise towers and grand administrative buildings. Where it was rare, a generation ago, to see buildings more than six stories tall, nowadays it is common to see hastily built structures exceeding 12 stories.
According to the city government, all this follows a careful general plan. But adding to concerns, the plan is publicly unavailable and treated like a state secret. In 2019, when a local urban activist tried to examine how the city’s construction permits process led to her own home being slated for demolition, she found a decentralized, graft-prone system with ambiguous and ever-shifting rules. Anecdotal evidence suggests new developments often cut corners with building codes; many are connected to high-ranking government officials.
“Look at how poorly these new apartments are built!” said Gafur, a Dushanbe native, who recently was forced by government demolition crews to leave the home where he was raised near the Green Bazaar. He and his family now live in a new high-rise.
“[These new buildings] look fancy [from the outside] but inside they’re just low-quality concrete boxes. Poor ventilation, low ceilings, it’s awful,” he told Eurasianet.
Sher Khashimov is a journalist from Tajikistan.