Tajikistan, a country with an atrocious state postal service, has shut down several international courier firms such as DHL, UPS, TNT, and Pony Express. The government says that the firms that have been working in the country for the bulk of its 25-year independence will now need licenses to operate.
Last week the buildings of the companies in the capital Dushanbe were sealed off and their employees ordered to leave the premises, several local and international news agencies reported.
The move was the apparent brainchild of the Tajik Communication Service, an organisation that does more to inhibit communication than facilitate it. Mostly, the service headed by Beg Sabur (formerly Beg Zukhurov) is known for orders to block social media platforms. In 2012, Sabur blocked Facebook — which he accused of spreading “slander and lies” — and sent a barb in Mark Zuckerberg's direction.
Does this Facebook have an owner or not? Could he come to Tajikistan? I would meet with him during my office hours. If he doesn't have time, I could meet with one of his assistants.
That explains why Tajik Facebook user Ivan Zanin wrote ironically last week:
Вообще хозяин у этого DHL есть или нет? Он не может приехать в Таджикистан?
Does this DHL have an owner? Can’t he come to Tajikistan?
Mostly, international courier services have operated normally in Tajikistan, although DHL employees were accused of sending drugs to Russia ten years ago. The reason they are being targeted now may have more to do with rent-seeking behaviour increasing as the country's economy falters.
Put simply, these courier services, which are too expensive for ordinary Tajiks but useful for international organisations, corporations and embassies, are a soft target. They can be shaken down without significantly angering the broader population.
Another, more regular target for the Communication Service is Internet Service Providers (ISPs), who are completely beholden to Sabur, a relative of Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon via marriage. One ploy to extract money out of the cash-cow ISPs is the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center the government plans to build at their expense.
As Eurasianet reported last year:
In its latest effort to fasten its grip over the flow of information in and out of the country, the government has established an agency called the “Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center,” abbreviated as EKTs in Russian.
In crude terms, the system requires all traffic — be it from mobile phones or the Internet — to be filtered through a network gateway run by state-owned telecommunications company Tojiktelecom.
“Implementation of the decree is obligatory for all domestic entities active in the electronic communications sector,” the decree states.
There are doubts, however, as to the extent to which the the centre will even exist, with many viewing it as an elaborate facade to secure payments from ISPs who have been unable to extract meaningful information about how it will operate. Earlier this year, the same website reported that Tajikistan's government was using other methods to extort cash from the same companies.
A few months ago, all private dealers of mobile phone sim cards were shut down, emptying space for two new dealers rumored to be belong to Sabur's son, who is also the all-powerful Rakhmon's son-in-law.
There are rumours that the very same man now plans to open a new ISP. Only time will tell whether he will add a new private courier to his blossoming business empire.