WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 553, October 24, 2008
TAJIKISTAN: LESS FOOD ON THE TABLE Farming sector now so unproductive that
even Tajik specialities like fruit are being imported. By Lola Olimova and
Shamsiddin Rizoev in Dushanbe
KAZAK CONSTRUCTION SLUMP SPARKS PROTESTS Residents of two biggest cities
protest over housing scams, bankruptcies and evictions. By Irina Stupakova in
KYRGYZ WARY OF CHINESE BEARING GIFTS Beijing offers a sweetener to get its TV
programmes shown in Kyrgyzstan, but some commentators fear cultural
encroachment. By Mirgul Akimova in Bishkek
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TAJIKISTAN: LESS FOOD ON THE TABLE
Farming sector now so unproductive that even Tajik specialities like fruit are
By Lola Olimova and Shamsiddin Rizoev in Dushanbe
Look at whats happening here! says Professor Inom Asrorov in dismay. Were
importing tea, grain, oil and even fruit. And its made us highly dependent on
world food prices.
Although the professor is deputy director of Tajikistans Institute of
Economics, his concerns are far from academic they go to the heart of a
crisis facing the poorest of the five Central Asian states.
As a major importer of basic commodities, Tajikistan has found itself more
vulnerable than most countries to the rise in world prices for both food and
fuel in recent months.
Many economists believe the country could soon face a decline in revenues as
the international financial crisis reduces the spending power of donors and
investors. (See Tajik Economists Fear Impact of Global Crisis, RCA No. 552,
Against this difficult backdrop, Professor Asrorov highlights a particularly
alarming trend the kinds of foodstuffs he listed are things that Tajikistan
should be able to produce for itself even in times of trouble. Instead,
home-grown fruit and vegetables are disappearing, replaced by imports which are
steadily more expensive.
FROM FOOD PRODUCER TO IMPORTER
Tajikistan imports some 60 per cent of the grain and flour its population
consumes, mainly from Russia and Kazakstan. Asrorov estimates that the country
needs 1.5 million tons of various grains a year and currently grows between
450,000 and 600,000 tons.
Those countries plus Uzbekistan, Iran and China are also the source of many
other imported food items.
Until last year, the Tajiks produced all the fruit and vegetables and a good
proportion of the meat and dairy products they needed. That has started to
change, and these items, too, are now being imported.
Rahmon Shukurov, who lectures at Tajikistans Agrarian University as well as
working on international biodiversity projects, says it actually works out
cheaper to import foodstuffs.
There are reports of our [Tajik] businessmen renting land and growing
vegetables in Uzbekistan, where rent is cheaper and fertilisers and fuel are
cheaper, he said. Its significantly cheaper to grow and transport tomatoes
from Iran than to grow them here. They are even importing greens from
The reasons for the decline in agricultural production are not new lack of
arable land, soil degradation, an over-dependence on cotton which displaces
edible crops, the lack of manpower in rural communities, and seasonal variables
such as last winters unusually harsh climatic conditions.
But the confluence of all these factors in a worsening economic climate could
create a food crisis for Tajikistan, according to some experts.
For the moment, the markets are still full of food, although because much of it
is imported, it is beyond the reach of many Tajiks.
There are vegetables, fruit and grain at the markets, but not everyone can
afford to buy as much as they need, Professor Asrorov told IWPR.
He added that food import volumes were far higher than is desirable for
These imports are having a serious impact on overall price levels. The
statistical agency of the Commonwealth of Independent States recently said
year-on-year inflation for the eight months from January to August stood at 31
per cent. That represents a substantial increase even on the latest
International Monetary Fund, IMF, forecast of just under 22 per cent for 2008,
and is higher than the inflation observed in any other Central Asian state.
Imomali Akai is typical of the kind of person hardest hit by price rises.
Although at 60 he is near retirement age, he works from dawn to dusk as porter
at a city market in the capital Dushanbe.
I used to get a wage of 100 roubles [a month] and I could save 30 or 40 for
other things, he said. Now Ive only got enough to buy flour. Life has become
BASIC CROPS NOW HARDER TO PRODUCE
With its hot summers, Tajikistan used to be famous for citrus fruits, grapes
and other fresh fruit vegetables. Until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the
produce would be transported to other parts of the country, but in subsequent
years which in Tajikistans case was aggravated by the bloody civil war of
1992-97 the old economic and transport links were broken. As a result, until
recently, Tajikistan had a surplus of unexported fruit which sold for next to
nothing in peak season.
However, the overall decline in agriculture means many farmers are struggling
to produce even the basics.
Rahim Abdullaev, 46, lives in the Bokhtar district of Khatlon region in
southern Tajikistan, and earns a living by working in a bakery selling the
traditional flat bread that is a staple item for Tajiks. But his monthly wages
are only enough to buy half the amount of flour he needs to support an extended
family of 18, for whom he is the main breadwinner.
Abdullaev counts himself lucky for two reasons the bakery owner gives him
flour on credit, and he has relatives working in Russia who send back money to
keep the family afloat.
The family has some land on which they grow fruit and vegetables and keep a
couple of cows for the milk. In earlier day, they lived better by growing
peaches, apricots, apples and pears. But the orchards were badly damaged when
the village was torched by paramilitaries during the civil war.
Even now, Abdullaev says, yields are getting worse and worse. This year, he had
to make four attempts to plant tomatoes as they became infested with parasites.
Everything is very expensive at the market, so we decided to plant potatos to
feed the family. We planted them in spring but there were no rains so the
harvest was small and were going to have to buy in more potatoes for the
winter, said Abdullaev, Without the help we get from over there [labour
migrants in Russa] wed never be able to make ends meet.
The familys basic diet consists of bread and dairy products and occasionally
rice. They eat meat only on holidays, or when guests visit, as the Tajik
tradition of hospitality demands.
Tajikistan has unfavourable starting conditions for agriculture. Over 90 of the
country consists of mountains so there is very little flat arable land to start
with. Around 20 per cent of the country is used for agriculture and another 10
per cent or so for pasture.
Overuse of the limited land available has led to degradation of the soil. The
Central Asian Countries Initiative for Land Management, a donor-funded regional
project, estimates that 97 per cent of Tajik farmland has been harmed by poor
irrigation practices and salination. In the arid flatlands of north and south
Tajikistan, most of the land used to be artificially irrigated but that is no
longer the case as water systems have fallen into disrepair and often there is
no electricity to drive the pumps.
Shukurov says rising subsoil waters are now a major problem. This is especially
true around Qorghan Tepa in southwestern Tajikistan traditionally the main
production area for fruit and vegetables.
In a number of districts in that [Qorghan Tepa] zone, subsoil water levels are
so high that its even becoming a danger to human habitation, he said. For
vegetables, its just death.
Shukurov explained that drainage systems are no longer working, which leads to
salination and makes previously productive farmland no longer usable.
Tajikistan has to import fuel, fertiliser, pesticides and parts for now aging
farm machinery, the rising costs of which make running a farm less and less
sustainable. And because farmers do not have the money to buy pesticides, their
crops are vulnerable to infestation.
In the last few years, whitefly has become endemic there [Qorghan Tepa area]
doing colossal harm to vegetables and other plants. There just arent the funds
to wage a massive war on it in this country, said Shukurov.
Another major pest affecting large swathes of southern Tajikistan is the
locust, which forms massive swarms and destroys cropland wholesale. (For more
on the annual locust invasion, see Central Asias Poorest States in Crisis, RCA
No. 532, 15-Feb-08.)
There is little that can be done to prevent the same happening again if the
coming winter is another cold one. But economists say better management of the
sector and more considered use of the land available could begin to turn things
round in the longer term.
Professor Umarov wants to see greater application of science in farming to make
it more productive.
Yields must be increased, he said. To achieve that we need qualified staff
Agronomists, agrochemists and land amelioration experts.
Asrorov agreed, saying that land needed to be used more effectively, and
recommended that hillsides should be used for orchards and vines, and not for
wheat, which exhausts the soil and leads to wind erosion.
Lola Olimova is IWPR editor in Tajikistan. Shamsiddin Rizoev is an IWPR-trained
journalist in Dushanbe.
KAZAK CONSTRUCTION SLUMP SPARKS PROTESTS
Residents of two biggest cities protest over housing scams, bankruptcies and
By Irina Stupakova in Almaty
As the construction boom seen in Kazakstans larger cities slows to a halt,
anger over unbuilt homes and broken promises is driving people to take to the
streets in protest.
A series of protests over housing issues have taken place in the capital Astana
and the country commercial centre Almaty this month.
The demonstrators represented various groups former army officers with
nowhere to live, people whose homes are to be demolished to make way for
redevelopment, and others who have lost everything they invested in now
bankrupt construction firms.
Over the last decade, both Astana and Almaty have experienced large influxes of
people looking to benefit from the better employment prospects there, which are
largely the result of the countrys oil wealth. With housing in high demand,
the construction industry took off and new buildings started shooting up.
However, by the end of 2007, the crisis in the United States mortgage market
was making itself felt in Kazakstan. Local banks that had been underwriting the
building boom found themselves over-exposed by extensive borrowing from abroad.
There were also concerns about domestic loan quality whether people who had
taken out mortgages would be able to repay them.
Kazak banks reacted by raising interest rates and cutting the amount of credit
on offer, and this had an immediate impact in Almaty, Astana and other large
cities, where some projects were scaled down and others suspended entirely
pending an upturn.
Recent protests have included one on October 20 by a group of people in Astana
who paid over money to a construction firm that then went bankrupt; a
demonstration in Almaty against a construction firm that stopped building a
housing complex even though the project was being funded by government; and a
street action by retired defence ministry staff who collected money to give to
the ministry since it had failed to find the funds to pay for housing for them.
The biggest event was a rally on October 11 which brought together army reserve
officers demanding to be housed, residents of areas scheduled for demolition,
and people who had lost out in mortgage deals. Although their demands differed,
they presented a united front in demanding firm government action against the
state agencies, courts and businesses they blamed for their problems.
Many of them represented pressure groups which have fought lengthy legal
battles with property developers and the local authorities.
This is not a rally to shed tears, it is a rally to protest, the protesters
were told by Aynur Kurmanov, who heads Talmas, one of the groups that organised
Esen, a 42-year-old Almaty resident attending the rally, was there because the
area where he lives in central Almaty is scheduled for redevelopment. The city
authorities have approved demolition of the 1950s housing blocks there and
awarded property developers a building permit for this prime location.
Our housing block doesnt interest them, said Esen. The land its built on
and the surrounding area can be sold at a profit to build luxury housing.
The Almaty authorities have offered to rehouse residents, but the apartments it
has in mind are a long way from the city centre, and it can take up to two and
a half years to get one.
Only a fool would agree to that, said Esen. My neighbours and I are in a
difficult situation and I am afraid they will force us out.
Another group represented at to October 11 rally were members of the emerging
middle class who took out mortgages to invest in construction ventures, only to
find that the firms went bust or that they were fictitious front companies.
Igor Li, 39, from Almaty fell into the latter category and blames the
government for allowing companies to operate fraudulently.
All these companies were legally registered and really existed for some time;
they had tax inspections and audits. Why didnt the authorities spot the
fraudsters at the time, and why dont they hold them accountable now? he
Pressure groups focusing on a particular social issue are not a new phenomenon
in Kazakstan. (See Kazak Authorities Reluctant to Allow Public Protests, RCA
No. 490, 23-Apr-07; and Kazakstan: Trouble in Suburbia, RCA No. 443,
However, this year has seen them coalesce to form a broader front.
New movements issuing demands to the government and to financial and
commercial institutions have appeared, said Kurmanov. Disputes over social
issues are going to grow; that is obvious from the rising number of meetings,
pickets and rallies.
Independent journalist Daur Dosybiev believes protests grounded in social
concerns have taken on much more of a political colouring than they had a
couple of years ago.
This, he says, because people increasingly believe the problems they face are a
direct consequence of the alliance between money and power.
Today the protestors see they are the victims of companies that continue to
prosper, some businessmen make the transition into government, and when people
get cheated, the courts either make strange decisions or issue orders that are
Vladimir Yuritsin, a journalist who covered the October 11 rally, believes
Kazakstan is likely to see further social unrest stemming from a range of
The potential for protests is definitely growing, as can be seen by the rise
in inter-ethnic tension and the confrontation between rich and poor, and
between members of the public and the institutions of government, he said.
Gulmira Kurganbaeva, who heads the national government department in charge of
overseeing Almatys finances, insisted that the authorities were addressing the
concerns raised by demonstrators.
First, those construction firms that received state funding are going to
resume building work. And there are plans to introduce a law protecting
shareholder rights, she said. Although she acknowledged that these were
difficult times and government intervention was needed, she said people who
invested in construction projects should have done more to safeguard their
If the shareholders themselves had pushed for legislation to protect their
rights three years ago, we wouldnt have had the current situation, she said.
Irina Stupakova is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.
KYRGYZ WARY OF CHINESE BEARING GIFTS
Beijing offers a sweetener to get its TV programmes shown in Kyrgyzstan, but
some commentators fear cultural encroachment.
By Mirgul Akimova in Bishkek
A Chinese offer to provide high-tech TV equipment for an isolated part of
Kyrgyzstan has met with a sceptical response from commentators who suspect an
What worries them is the other part of the deal, under which news from Beijing
will be broadcast in Kyrgyzstan. That has led to claims that the country is
willingly subjecting itself to propaganda from its giant neighbour.
A press statement from the Kyrgyz parliament on October 21 announced that
members had debated a series of agreements with China, one of which would see
up to 15,000 digital TV receivers supplied to Batken region, in southwestern
Officials from the Kyrgyz communications ministry say the deal would help
overcome the physical isolation of Batken, a slice of land enveloped between
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Until now, viewers there have only been able to
watch TV channels from the two neighbouring states. Digital boxes will give
them access to Kyrgyz national television for the first time. As well as two TV
channels from Kyrgyzstan, they will also be able to watch channels from Russia
According to Ernis Mamyrkanov of the Kyrgyz broadcaster El TV and Radio, The
free distribution of TV receivers will reduce Uzbek and Tajik expansion in
He added that it would also speed up the transition to digital broadcasting,
which Kyrgyzstan plans to complete nationwide by 2014.
Batkens isolated location was one of the reasons why the militant Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan was able to use it as a launch-pad for incursions into
Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000. These raids put Batken on the map, and the Kyrgyz
government pledged to tackle social and economic problems facing the region.
The Chinese will also supply a new printing press for Batken, making it cheaper
to produce newspapers.
Most commentators seem happy with this side of the deal. What worries them is
the prospect of greater Chinese cultural influence via the airwaves.
China has increasing commercial links with Kyrgyzstan, with many businessmen
operating in the country and high levels of bilateral trade. Many residents of
Kyrgyzstan are, however, suspicious of Beijings motives, and the latest deal
will if passed by parliament only heighten those concerns.
In reality, the Chinese TV rebroadcasts that are envisaged are rather limited
in scope. First, the two channels will be seen only in the capital Bishkek, and
second, the news will be in English rather than in a language most people would
But some analysts are still concerned that the broadcasts form part of a
concerted cultural invasion.
The Chinese government is deliberately trying to create a political and
cultural environment that is loyal to China, said political scientist Nur
The fact that the Chinese have been granted permission to broadcast here is
very telling, and its a trend that is set to increase.
Another commentator, who asked to remain anonymous, asked what the Chinese are
going to broadcast and who is going to check the content.
Deputy transport and communications minister Taalaybek Eshaliev has the answer.
This is not about giving the Chinese a television or radio channel, he said.
It will be rebroadcasts of the state CCTV 9 channel, which mainly focuses on
economic news in English.
Narynbek Moldobaev, who chairs the parliamentary committee in charge of
communications, said legislators had put in place steps to guarantee national
These channels will be serviced by a Kyrgyz company. We will have levers of
control, he said.
Some commentators note that the arrival of Chinese TV only adds to the crowded
media scene in Kyrgyzstan, where media from Russia are widely available,
Kazakstan TV and radio are available in the north and programmes from
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are available in the south.
Mirgul Akimova is the pseudonym of a journalist in Kyrgyzstan.
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