21.08.2014 | Dushanbe: flagpole envy

As I boarded the plane en route from Moscow to Dushanbe, I immediately felt glad I had packed so light. The plane was full and nearly all passengers were young Tajik men, clearly going home on a break from their jobs in Russia, laden with hefty bags. The plane landed in Dushanbe at 3:20am and as soon as the wheels touched the tarmac, the sleepy tranquility vanished. Despite muted protests from air hostesses, several passengers were already on their feet and retrieving their bags from the overhead compartments. Once inside the dimly-lit terminal, excitement turned to agitation and what initially was a small orderly queue at passport control soon transformed into a disorderly crowd. I would see the same pattern time and again during my stay in Dushanbe.

Dushanbe is a typical Central Asian capital, with a grid of large avenues lined with leafy trees; large symmetrical buildings and golden statues of national heroes and poets.  Looking at the city from the roof of my hotel, however, what draws my attention is the number of cranes scattered across the city. 

There seems to be no stopping the construction boom in the capital, as if Tajikistan was trying to shrug off the label of the poorest Stan in Central Asia with impressive – though many locals I meet seem unimpressed – construction projects.  Some of these developments have more to do with vanity than utility and the anecdotes about them suggest that the construction of most was prompted by personal rivalries among the region’s leaders.  The city already has the largest flagpole in the region – three meters higher than its equivalent in neighbouring Azerbaijan – and the government is currently building what will be Central Asia’s largest teahouse. 

While many of the projects in the city centre are said to be spearheaded by President Emomali Rahmon, a whole different type of construction boom can be observed on the outskirts of Dushanbe.  Here most construction comprises affordable residential housing, family homes and dachas for the nascent middle-class.  These are being bought by young Tajiks working in Russia, who plan to return to the country in a few years, but prefer to settle in the capital rather than head back to their home villages.  Demand for housing in the suburbs of Dushanbe is high and there is no sign of the trend stopping. 

This is worrying because there is little actual economic development, jobs are still scarce and poorly paid, and foreign investment levels are the lowest in the region.  The security situation in most of Tajikistan seems stable at the moment because the current generation remembers the hardship of the civil war era.  Images of the bread queues of the 1990s were widely broadcast during the celebration of the National Unity Day in late June, which marks the signing of the 1997 peace accord.  These messages are contrasted with posters of the President – standing in a field of golden wheat or overlooking snowcapped mountains – that are scattered around the capital and highlight the country’s wealth. 

For the time being, the propaganda and the outward signs of economic development seem to be enough to discourage any public protests.  However, as large swaths of the country’s economy are increasingly becoming concentrated in the hands of a few members of the President’s family, there is no way of predicting what will happen to the small orderly queues when more Tajiks return home for good.