DUSHANBE (TCA) — In 2020, Tajikistan was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the country held parliamentary and presidential elections with no vivid opposition, and Tajik migrants experienced difficulties returning home. We are republishing the following article written by Navruz Karimov about these and other events of the year, originally published by CABAR.asia:
Parliamentary elections in Tajikistan held on March 1. 241 candidates competed for 63 mandates. The presidential People’s Democratic Party unsurprisingly won the elections, taking 46 out of 63 seats in the Lower Chamber. The voter turnout exceeded 86.4% and amounted to 4 million 245 thousand people.
Violations of political rights and freedoms, which are observed every elections by human rights organizations, did not leave opportunities for opposition parties, therefore, the voters did not see actual alternatives. There was no debate before the parliamentary elections on state TV channels. Radio Ozodi tried to hold debate, but apart from the Social Democratic Party, other parties rejected the invitations.
No violations were found in the work of the election commission. But there were no legal and actual guarantees of multiple registration on election day, because Tajikistan does not have a unified list of voters, despite OSCE’s recommendations for the authorities. Observers could not judge the honesty of the vote count, because they were prohibited from being near the representatives of the Central Election Committee at that time.
In 2020, parliamentary and presidential elections were the most predictable due to the lack of competition, real debates, and political opposition.
On October 11, 2020, the presidential elections in Tajikistan were held without the with no pre-election race or whatsoever. The only intrigue revolved around the rumors about the possible participation in the elections of Rustam Emomali, the chairman of the city of Dushanbe and the son of President Emomali Rahmon.
The expectations did not come true. The bidders were the party leaders and the current president Emomali Rahmon, who won the elections for the fifth time (since 1994) and retained his post, gaining 90.92% of the votes.
During the election campaigns, not a single candidate openly criticized the incumbent president, as any criticism of Emomali Rahmon could be equated to an insult or defamation against the Leader of the Nation, which according to existing laws leads to imprisonment from 2 to 5 years (Article 137 (1) Criminal Code of Republic of Tajikistan).
On the contrary, presidential candidates sympathized with the current political course. For example, the slogan of the Agrarian Party declared “Decent life for every citizen of Tajikistan”, which resonates with the tagline of the ruling People’s Democratic Party: “For progress and decent life of the people.” The electoral programs were not distinguished by fundamentally new ideas.
Against this backdrop, a 30-year-old independent candidate from Khorog, Faromuz Irgashev stood out. He promised to get rid of bribery in Tajikistan by creating the anti-corruption coordinating council. He had a full-fledged program, which covered foreign policy, economy, finance, education, healthcare, migration, youth policy, improving the efficiency of law enforcement agencies, etc. But Irgashev was not allowed to participate in the elections – he failed to collect the required 260 thousand voters’ signatures by September 15.
No party, apart from the People’s Democratic Party, run aggressive election campaigns. State media did not organize presidential debates and did not analyze the candidate campaigns. It contradicts to the paragraph 7.8 of the OSCE Copenhagen Document, which obliges Tajikistan to get rid of legal or administrative obstacles “in the way of unimpeded access to the media on a non-discriminatory basis for all political groupings and individuals wishing to participate in the electoral process”.
The presidential election in Tajikistan was supposed to be held in November, but was postponed to October. The reason for changing the date could be the spread of COVID-19, which worsens at low temperatures.
Grim fate of labor migrants
To prevent the spread of coronavirus disease, Tajikistan canceled international flights with all countries on March 20, 2020 – at the height of the labor migration season. About 500 thousand people leave Tajikistan annually, but in 2020 only 129 thousand did so. In 2020 potentially 74% of Tajik citizens were unable to travel.
Decrease in the flow of migration and jobs caused shortening in bank transfers to Tajikistan by 14.8% or $195 million in the first half of 2020. Not less important, migrants carry home cash money, which means that their families in Tajikistan in reality may have miscounted more than $195 million of their incomes.
Most Tajik migrants abroad have lost their livelihoods due to a plunge of business activities in the construction and services sectors. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) conducted a survey which revealed that 90% of migrants lack funds to send money to their families. 60% of migrants said that they had nothing to pay for rent, and 40% of respondents did not have enough money for food.
From January to April 2020, according to Unistream, remittances from Russia to the CIS countries decreased by 11%, while transfers from the CIS countries to Russia increased by 47%. The situation when migrants, who left the country in order to earn and send money to home, have to ask their families for financial support indicates their plight during the first wave of COVID-19.
As a result, Tajik migrants were forced to return home. The government organized charter flights, which returned over 90 thousand citizens to Tajikistan. But the number of flights fell short of demand and led to monthly queues for a flight ticket. The price of a one-way ticket, for example, from Russia to Tajikistan with loading cost 395 euros, that is 40% more expensive than the cost of a ticket for a regular flight. Migrants who had lost their income had to pay for them without support from the government.
Therefore, some of them looked for cheaper ways: many decided to use buses and cars to come to Tajikistan but were detained on the Kazakh-Uzbek border for 2-3 weeks. People were allowed to pass through as the places in the quarantine zones became vacant; some said that people starved for days and slept outside for lack of funds.
The budget of organizations and committees dealing with migration issues did not imply mass labor vacations and therefore their help was belated. For example, IOM requested $7 million from the UN to support vulnerable migrants in 2 months after the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Thanks to the collaboration of the Tajikistan government with IOM three thousand Tajik citizens who were stuck on the Kazakh-Uzbek border were brought back by buses.
Protests in Tajikistan and government’s response
Closure of the Bokhtar-Dushanbe road
In mid-May, a mudflow descended in Khuroson. In result of the disaster one died, 76 houses were completely destroyed, 50 heads of livestock were killed. In total, 338 houses were severely damaged by the mudflow.
To draw the attention of the authorities to the problem, local residents blocked the Bokhtar-Dushanbe road for several hours at noon on May 17. Authorities reacted on the next day, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Tajikistan on May 18 convened called for urgent meeting with the the Khatlon regional administration and affected families. During the meeting, the authorities promised to eliminate the consequences of the disaster.
Families whose houses were completely destroyed were allocated 8 acres of land, board and slate. The servicemen of the Committee for Emergency Situations and employees of state institutions were involved for the construction of the foundations of the houses. All victims received humanitarian aid from the European Union in a total amount of 80 thousand euros. Entrepreneurs from Rasht District also showed support. Their donations ranged from 750 to 2000 somoni (75-200 USD), some gave away 50 kilograms of flour to each affected family.
The negative side of the story is the administrative arrest of ten people who attracted public attention by blocking the Botakh-Dushanbe road for organizing an unauthorized protest; according to information from Radio Ozodi, the fate of other six detainees, remains unknown.
Protests in Rushan District
On May 22, during the arrest of Sharof Kobilov in Rushan, officers of the State Committee for National Security (SCNS) in civilian uniforms faced resistance from three people, who, failing to recognize law enforcement officers, decided to stand up for their neighbor. The next day, the SCNS officers detained Yodgor Gulomkhaidarov and two teenagers, who interfered with the special operation of capturing Kobilov.
This led to the discontent of the residents of Rushan district. Protesters gathered outside the local department of the SCNS and claimed to release detainees. Unable to disperse the mob, law enforcement officers decided to transport the suspects to the territory of the border troops, so access to them would be difficult. The protesters, however, surrounded the convoy and released the detainees, who claimed that officers used violence against them.
Law enforcement put an ultimatum: if the suspects are not handed over to the authorities within 10 days, they will initiate criminal cases against 109 protesters.
On June 16, residents of Rushan district staged a rally again in the district center, demanding to end the persecution of innocent people, who would be forced to confess to a crime. The residents of neighboring Khorog were also outraged by the actions of the SCNS officers and went to protest in the city center on June 17. The mayor of the city Kishwar Shamiri came out to the crowd to declare that the chairman of the region, Yodgor Faizov, was already dealing with the issue.
As a result, the criminal prosecution against the suspects was stopped, they were cited with an administrative arrest and a fine for disorderly conduct in the amount of 406 somoni. The protesters were ordered to repair the SCNS cars that were damaged during the rallies at their own expense.
Public management during a pandemic
Measures to counter the spread of COVID-19
For economic reasons it took some time for the Tajikistan government to admit the presence of COVID-19 in the country. The majority of the population did not have enough savings and food supplies to go on unpaid leave for several months; quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line.
The first COVID-19 cases were officially announced on April 30, the day before the arrival of the World Health Organization mission in Tajikistan. However, the cancellation of flights, closure of state borders and mosques, where masses gather for Friday prayers, happened in March. Kindergartners, students of schools, and technical schools went on vacation from April 27 to May 10, and university students closed sessions ahead of schedule. After the quarantine, students should have continued to attend classes in mask regime, but this rule was severely violated not only in educational institutions, but also in public places, despite a possibility of being fined from 116 to 290 somoni.
The Tajik authorities did not follow the example of other countries and did not enforce strong restrictions, only festive events were banned, including Independence Day and the New Year’s Eve. Private enterprises continued to work, the public transport was not limited. Based on the official data, in Tajikistan from April 30 to December 27, only 0.1% of the population was infected with coronavirus. The ratio between infected, – 13,205 people, and those who died from coronavirus disease – 90 people, was 0.68%.
These figures are lower than in other Central Asian countries. That should indicate the effectiveness of antiviral measures in Tajikistan, but there is no confidence in the official statistics. The authorities are being accused of either deliberately underreporting the actual number of infected, or choosing the wrong model for counting the deaths from coronavirus. Infection with COVID-19 may cause worsening of chronic diseases or failing of weak organs in the human body. So, if pneumonia became the cause of death of an infected patient, then the cause of death was ascribed to pneumonia, and not to coronavirus, which exacerbated the disease and worsened the health conditions.
Socio-economic measures and fiscal policy
Restrictions on air and land transport have raised the prices of non-food items. The sharp demand for medical masks and sanitizers led to their shortages and increased prices in pharmacies. To meet the high demand, Tajik sewing enterprises have steered their capacities to the production of personal protective equipment. In June, Tajikistan produced up to 300 thousand medical masks, which were distributed not only on the territory of the republic, but also exported to European countries.
In June, the government of Tajikistan supported small and medium businesses with tax holidays of 4 to 5 months. Individuals were exempted of real estate taxes, enterprises – of rent expenses; customs duties for the import of medical goods were abolished. All medical institutions that quarantined citizens free of charge and treated them from COVID-19 also received exemptions.
Vulnerable communities were allocated a one-time aid of 400 somoni, and 5,000 health and social workers received wage supplements. Since September 1, pensions, scholarships and salaries of budgetary workers have been increased by 15%, but the increase in the prices of essential products nullified the government program to support the population.
Prices upsurge in the background of the depreciation of the somoni in relation to the USD by 13.8%. This was due to a decrease in the volume of remittances to Tajikistan from migrants and a significant predominance of imports over exports. Ironically, the decree of the President of the Republic of Tajikistan “On Preventing the Impact of the Infectious Disease COVID-19 on the Socio-Economic Spheres of the Republic of Tajikistan,” which was designed to prevent hunger among the population, could have contributed the drain of foreign currency from the country. Emomali Rahmon, in the decree, ordered the National Bank of Tajikistan to provide foreign currency on a priority basis to foreign enterprises engaged in the import of essential goods.
Food imports accelerated the outflow of foreign currencies, which was already in short supply due to lower remittances. The national currency lost its value and the final price of imported products boomed. As a result, Tajikistan became one of the top twenty countries with the highest food prices.
The pandemic has exposed Tajikistan’s food security problems and dependence on imports. The budget deficit almost doubled, tax collection in the first 9 months decreased by 3.7%, targeted tax collection from large taxpayers was fulfilled only by 53%, extra-budgetary funds decreased by at least 12%.
But the crisis has created a favorable condition for social and economic reforms. Public and administrative expenses were cut by 11.4%, and energy sector costs fell by 23.1%. Financing of repair work, purchases of new equipment decreased, lower priority projects were postponed, and some government events were canceled. Saved funds were redirected to increase expenditures for the health sector (by 19.6%) and support social protection measures (by 9%).
In the first 9 months of 2020, GDP growth in Tajikistan slowed down by 3.3% and amounted to 4.2% on an annualized basis. The results could be worse, but the increase of agricultural production and exports of gold supported the growth of the republic’s gross domestic product.
Debt and grant policy
The budget deficit had to be filled with loans, which increased the level of public debt in relation to GDP from 36.6% to 40%. Tajikistan managed to attract $353 million in grants and loans from international organizations, which provided significant financial backing to the economy.
It is expected that international financial organizations will continue the program of accelerated lending to Tajikistan, which means that external debt in 2021 will also grow. Allocating money to pay off interest charges will create pressure on the national budget and slow down the tempo of economic recovery to pre-crisis levels. The government of Tajikistan has agreed with China to suspend debt service until mid-2021, but negotiations with other creditors are still in progress.
In 2020, Tajikistan received humanitarian aid in the amount of $ 45.1 million from 60 countries. The largest contribution was made by China, which provided 40.6% of all humanitarian aid, consisting of flour, oil, medicines, medical equipment and ambulances. Uzbekistan also donated 144 carriages to Tajikistan with the necessary components for the establishing of a mobile hospital in Dushanbe.
Tajikistan, like the rest of the world, is entering 2021 in anticipation of vaccines and revitalized trade. The growth of the Tajikistan economy in the next 2 years will be lower than the pre-pandemic period – the state will focus on solving the critical consequences of COVID-19.
2020 has revealed the food security problem in Tajikistan. The discontent of citizens both inside the country and abroad has intensified. Protesters, whose demonstrations are usually harshly suppressed by the authorities, have managed the craft consensus. The problems of migrants still remain unresolved.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown Tajikistan’s safety system unavailability and household dependence on remittances. In subsequent years, spending on secondary government projects will be reduced and more funds will be consolidated in the social sector. If the new tax reform project will pass legislation, the practice of providing tax concessions, loans and grants to recovering businesses will expand.
In 2020, the state media did not pay enough attention to one of the most important events in the country – presidential and parliamentary elections. Television debates were not organized, election campaigns were not covered, and the candidates themselves did not show interest in cooperation with journalists. The combination of these factors anticipated the victory of the current president Emomali Rahmon (and his party), who, compared to other candidates, was conducting an aggressive election campaign.