Tajikistan: Where Size Matters

Like any ancient Roman politician worth his salt, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon knows the political capital to be made out of large, ostentatious public works projects. Yet unlike the Caesars, Sullas, Pompeys and Catos of the Eternal City, he is loath to pay for them out of his own pocket.

A case in point is the National Library of Tajikistan, hailed as the largest of its kind in Central Asia. The building, whose essential statistics are 52 x 167 metres, amassed over $40 million from the beleagured state budget. Moreover, the Tajik government has asked ordinary citizens of the country to fill up its shelves with any unwanted literature, and, according to a news report by Kloop.tj, requisitioned books from university students under duress.

National Library of Tajikistan. Image from kloop.tj via rfe/rl.

National Library of Tajikistan. Image from kloop.tj via rfe/rl.

Tajikistan’s external debt stands at $2 billion. The country’s Gross National Product per capita is currently around $2,000, making it one of the poorest countries in the world, and one of the least able to afford such lavish displays of architectural excess.

But this doesn’t appear to concern Rahmon, the post-Soviet republic’s twenty-year head of state. He is infected, some say, by Dubaism, by the desire to build things that are the biggest, tallest, widest, longest (and any other superlative related to size) in the region, world, multiverse and so on. But unlike in the capitals of the United Arab Emirates, there is no oil money to pay for these schemes.

His flagship flagpole project

In an interview in a Voice Of America video posted on YouTube about the President’s 2011 pet project, the tallest flagpole in the world, which at over 165 metres high took $3.5 million from the state budget, Tajik opposition politician, Muhiddin Kabiri, said:

You know what they say. People who are short wear high heels to compensate for their lack of height. If we can’t get people to pay attention to our economy, tourism, high-tech industry, democracy or human rights, then we can get our own citizens and guests to pay attention to projects such as the world’s tallest flagpole.

On his Facebook page, renowned Tajik blogger Zafar Abdullayev brainstormed [ru] an ironic excursion to the largest library in Central Asia, not far from the tallest flagpole in the world:

 Tomorrow I am going with my friends to the National Library. I am bringing some of my books. Whoever wants, come with us! 10.00 behind the statue of Ismoili Somoni. Books help you see a completely different life!

But Konstantin Bodarenko [ru] didn’t like the idea of giving away his books:

But I don't want to give away my books – who will need them there?

Abdullaev vowed [ru] that his library tour group would be:

visible from all sides of the town, just don’t confuse us with the flagpole.

To which Rustam Rahmatov replied [ru]:

Just in case..I’ll hoist the flagpole up in my hands and Zafar will be on top of the flagpole!

Abdurahmon Rahmonov had [taj] a positive view of the exercise:

Great Zafar, you are working for the sake of the next generation!  If they don`t read today they won`t have a better future. Hopefully (inshallah) there will be more people who read books /readers.

Wobbly regimes don't like independent media

But even joking about the government's ‘Dubaism’ is becoming harder in Tajikistan's current political climate. As discontent inside the country continues to grow, Dushanbe has intermittently blocked Facebook, causing users to enter the site via proxies until the block was lifted with help from the OSCE earlier last month.

The Rahmon regime's concern over the social network lies in the fact that Tajiks often use the space as a forum to discuss pressing social issues and political problems. Pages on the site such as ‘Tajikistan Revolution 2012′,  although little-visited, are unlikely to lead to a softer stance towards citizen media in the long-term.

The block was part of a broader crackdown on the freedom to publish that began in early March this year. Zvezda.ru, where an article appeared predicting the downfall of the Rahmon regime, and CentralAsia.ru, was also banned, whilst ferghana.ru has long been blocked in the country.

Beyond their suppression of the written word, the Tajik authorities have launched a systematic campaign against religious freeedoms in the predominantly Muslim country. A March 20, United States government report placed the country inside the top sixteen worst abusers of religious freedom in the world, indicating another record the state's ruling family may be trying to break.

Bullish in a recent interview with Euronews, Rahmon said that there could be “no shortcut to democracy” in his country. Speaking of Russia's recent parliamentary and presidential elections, he added:

[Creating] a European or American style democracy in Russia or other former Soviet Republics in just a day or so – this is impossible – it's just a dream.

At one stage, so was building the world's tallest flagpole:

'The highest unsupported flagpole in the world, in Dushanbe'. Image by Radioi Ozodi (RFE/RL).

'The highest unsupported flagpole in the world, in Dushanbe'. Image by Radioi Ozodi (RFE/RL).

Author's note: Citizen journalist Tohir Pallaev contributed translations to this article.


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