Tag Archives: economic

EURASIANET: “Tajikistan: International Callers Hit by Move to Throttle Hi-Tech”

Ilhom Nodirov, 25, has been working in Berlin for the past three years, but technology has made keeping in touch with his family in Tajikistan a low-cost affair. As of earlier this month, that all changed.

Authorities are resorting to a heavy-handed method to crush money-saving methods for long-distance communication, citing purported security concerns. Sources inside the state agency responsible for regulating the telephone and Internet sector say that the government’s real motive is to ramp up revenues.

A hugely popular technology known as the next-generation network, or NGN, has for several years enabled phone users to avoid racking up huge bills. People in Tajikistan can open an account with one of several telecommunications service providers and then pass on the log-in details to relatives and friends abroad. The foreign-based caller installs an app on their phone and whenever they are connected to the Internet, they can make their call. All that is then charged is the amount it would cost to make a local call inside Tajikistan.

The appeal is obvious. Nodirov told EurasiaNet.org that at tariffs of 0.10 somoni ($0.01) per minute, he has been able to chat with his relatives for endless hours. If somebody made a regular phone call from Tajikistan to Germany, meanwhile, it would cost 1.40 somoni ($0.15) per minute.

The particular attractiveness of this method is that only one side in the transaction needs be connected to a reliable Internet network. In Tajikistan, the quality of Internet connection is often poor and the penetration patchy in the regions, so programs like Skype are not always feasible.

The ability to save money on long-distance calls is particularly important in Tajikistan, where hundreds of thousands of people travel abroad every year for work. Around 1 million people in the country used NGN services, according to official figures.

On December 18, the Communications Services Agency informed all telecommunications companies in the country to suspend access to NGN accounts.

Authorities had hinted strongly that this was coming a few weeks earlier. On December 15, they decided to drive the message by having bailiffs seal the main premises of Vavilon-T, an Internet provider prized for its particularly good speeds. They cited concerns over the company’s NGN services as their motivation. Within three days, the company complied. Almost all the other industry peers have fallen in line too.

Nodirov’s parents are elderly and struggle to master the intricacies of using smartphone messaging apps. The only way they will be able to keep in touch with their son now is by returning to much more expensive, old-fashioned phone calls, Nodirov said.

These days, Nodirov speaks to his parents in brief bursts, to make sure all is well with them. “If before I spent about 30 somoni a month on speaking to my parents, in the five days [after December 18], I already spent 50 somoni,” he said. “We don’t talk the way we used to, for ages and ages, to find out everything that is going on, but just for five minutes.”

Tajikistan’s communications regulators have devised multiple ways to put the squeeze on telephone companies and their clients over the years. In 2016, they claimed to have created a telecommunications node dubbed the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, or EKTs in its Russian language acronym. This system purportedly funneled any type of telecommunications-based exchange – be it by phone or Internet – through a powerful computer.

It is not known beyond all certainty, however, if this system actually exists or whether the government has simply claimed it does to convey the illusion of powerful surveillance capabilities.

More significantly, immaterial of whether the EKTs is actually real or not, the communications agency levies 0.20 somoni ($0.022) for every minute of outgoing phone calls to fund the upkeep of the would-be node.

These stories are grist to the mill of those critics of the Communications Services Agency who grumble that this government body is little more than a money-making racket.

The agency is run by Beg Sabur – né Beg Zukhurov; he adopted a new moniker in line with a craze a few years ago for refashioning names to more closely fit Tajik custom. He is a relative by marriage of President Emomali Rahmon, and his agency’s access to copious sources of revenue has seen it branch into multiple other areas of business, including construction and the hotel industry.

Attempts by the media to gently probe the agency’s activities are met with intense hostility. When an article about the imminent change of policy on NGN appeared in the local media earlier this month, representatives of several telecommunications companies were summoned to the communications regulator’s office for a dressing-down and faced veiled threats of prosecution in the event of more leaks to the press.

All industry insiders that spoke to EurasiaNet.org for this article did so on condition of anonymity.

Trends in the industry would appear to illustrate why the government is eager to quash a cost-saving form of technology. In 2016, Tajik mobile phone subscribers made 150-million-minutes worth of international calls every month. That represents a big drop. According to official data, over the past four years, the volume of international calls has fallen by 70 percent.

Fewer long-distance calls mean lower revenues for the communications agency.

“International voice calls are already yesterday’s news because after the appearance of NGN, [and messaging apps like] Viber, WhatsApp and so on, the volume of international calls has fallen sharply,” one manager at a telecommunications company told EurasiaNet.org. “Rather than call Russia at 1.2 somoni [a minute], it is easier for customers to have megabytes and to talk to their relatives for free. If we used to make our money through voice calls, now we are concentrating more on the Internet, and that is a global trend.”

Communications regulators insist the move against NGN is strictly about security.

“People buy accounts and go to Afghanistan and Syria, and their relatives talk to them as though they were in Tajikistan,” a communications agency representative told EurasiaNet.org.

There is mounting speculation that next in line will be messaging apps like Viber and WhatsApp, which operate on a slightly different principle than NGN. While the communications service representative would not confirm whether they would try to block those apps outright, he said that they needed to be strictly regulated to “preserve stability.”

Attempts to implement outright blockages of Internet-based resources have proven quixotic in the past, however. Facebook has been blocked on several occasions in Tajikistan, only for a growing number of people to learn how to use simple ban-circumventing techniques. Clamping down on one app simply drives telephone users to another, as a source at another Tajik mobile company told EurasiaNet.org.

“Voice communication on WhatsApp was blocked in the [United Arab Emirates], but you could still talk perfectly normally through Telegram,” the source said. “The more smartphones there are around, the more services will enter our lives, and limiting them is not possible. People who are not willing to overpay for voice communications will find some way to get around the restrictions.”

Eurasianet

December 22, 2017

Moderndiplomacy: “Tajikistan: transition to monarchy completed?”

The mayor of Dushanbe, Tajikistan`s capitol city, was sacked by Presidential decree. Had such a case happened in a Western country, it would have been accepted as something quite ordinary. Especially if the dismissed person had served 20 years in office. But in Tajikistan, Central Asia`s landlocked nation, with its own mentality and features, that go is more than a discharge. It might be the last move in the struggle of power and signal the completion of transition to monarchy (still unformal though).

Who was Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev?

Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev had been governing Dushanbe for uninterrupted 20 years. Labeled as No. 2 person in Tajikistan, he was reckoned the main rival to the country`s uncrowned monarch Emomali Rahmon.

A typical product of the Soviet party system, Ubaydulloev could make it into higher levels of the power at relatively a younger age in the 1980s.

Even after Tajikistan`s emergence as an independent nation as a result of the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Ubaydulloev remained in the government as deputy prime minister and managed to undergo the turbulent years of the civil war unharmed. In 1996, he was appointed mayor of Dushanbe, an office he would hold for another 20 years.

Ubaydulloev`s strong links with Moscow gave ground to rumors about him being Russia`s man in Tajikistan. At home and beyond, he was regarded as the sole and most serious person to challenge Emomali Rahmon`s unlimited rule, due to absence of normal opposition, although he always publicly supported the incumbent president and remained in his shade, satisfied with a modest status of the second person in the country.

Royal family

The present leader, Emomali Rahmon, has been leading Tajikistan de facto since 1992, as president since 1994. Although a military mutiny was launched against his clan in the mid-1990s, he could effectively manage to end the civil war in 1997, by making compromises and meeting some demands of the insurgents.

Throughout the 1990s and entire 2000s, Emomali Rahmon strove to firmly consolidate the power in his hands, by effectively diminishing the opposition`s influence and moving his main rivals out of the way. To further legitimize his unlimited and infinite rule, Tajik president initiated several referenda that lifted the limit on presidential terms, abolished the maximum eligibility age for presidential candidates and increased the period of presidential tenure. This process has been accompanied by human rights abuse and a high degree of corruption in almost all spheres, according to a number of international organizations. The U.S. diplomatic cables leaked in 2010 noted that members of Rakhmon’s family and inner circle are widely viewed as being the most corrupt people in the country.

The wealthier Rahmon has become, the poorer Tajikistan has downgraded. The Gross Domestic Product per capita in Tajikistan was recorded at 2661.38 US dollars in 2015, when adjusted by purchasing power parity (PPP). 32% of the population lives below the national poverty line, according to an ADB report. Mass unemployment has driven many people out of the country in search of job and better welfare outside. No surprise that the impoverished country has, therefore, long been the most remittance-dependent in the world, with cash transfers accounting for approximately half of the economy. Migrant transfers totaled more than $4 billion in 2013, the equivalent of 52 percent of GDP. That figure was 45.5 percent in 2010 and 48 percent in 2012.

Those, who travel to Tajikistan repeat that the country, especially its provinces seem frozen in the 1980s and no change in the country`s lifestyle and people`s welfare has occurred. The situation might have even worsened compared to the Soviet period.

Emomali Rahmon might not be quite successful in advancing his nation into the 21st century, but there is something he has done quite well. Having mastered the Soviet-time power style and imitating the leaders of his wealthier neighbors, he has built a personal cult, which may seem bigger than his own tiny country. Since 1994, Tajik president proudly bears the title “Peshvoi millat” (Leader of the Nation). In December 2015, Tajikistan`s parliament granted him another designation which sounds more solemn: “Founder of Peace and National Unity”.

A cult of personality centered around Emomali Rahmon is now extending to other members of his family. In recent years, Rahmon has strengthened his family`s position as he penetrated his children into important posts in the government. In 2016, Rahmon`s daughter Ozoda (39) became chief of the Presidential administration, a key government position in many post-Soviet countries. In the same year, she was also elected as a senator to the upper chamber of Majlisi Oli, Tajikistan`s Supreme Assembly. Prior to that, she had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, having reached the position of deputy minister.

Ozoda`s brother, Rustam Emomali (29) is the eldest son in Tajikistan`s first family. Rustam is known as one of the youngest generals in the world: in 2013, he was appointed head of the Customs Service and received a military rank of major general. In March 2015, President Emomali Rahmon appointed his son to head the country`s principal anti-corruption bureau, the State Agency for Financial Control and Measures Against Corruption.

The new post as the mayor of Dushanbe may seem as a trampoline for Rustam to a higher position as it was long speculated that the young man is being prepared to substitute his father on top. In addition to high-level training at senior government positions, Rustam`s path to the throne is also cleared and facilitated by the authorities. For example, in May 2016, a nationwide referendum gave a consent to a number of changes to the country`s constitution. One of the key amendments reduced the minimum eligibility age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30, effectively enabling Rustam Emomali to succeed his father in office after 2017.

In this context, the change in Dushanbe`s mayoral office could be the last move on a chessboard, at which Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev, No. 2 in Tajikistan with likely higher ambitions, was finally checkmated. By firing Ubaydulloev, Emomali Rahmon not only won the major struggle and kicked him out of political arena, but obviously pointed to Rustam as his successor.

In a country, where nepotism and corruption is a normal phenomenon (according to a widespread belief, any other person in place of Emomali Rahmon and/or other senior officials would also serve first to their pockets and promote their relatives), the recent developments may not generate any shock in local society and could be seen a logical event in the succession process.

Although other post-Soviet Central Asian neighbors of Tajikistan have also similar regimes with unlimited power of the strongmen, who would reign until their last days (Kyrgyzstan is a lucky exception with some signs of democracy) and have their family members enjoy great influence in the country, neither Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan nor Saparmurad Niyazow of Turkmenistan did not (or could not) manage to transfer the power to their children. But Tajikistan is completing a transformation to monarchy with certain steps.

moderndimocracy

January 29, 2017