Tajiks Buy Into State Power Plant Initiative
January 12, 2010, Farangis Najibullah
With the Tajik government desperately seeking funds to finish a pet project of national importance, the people appear to be buying into the country's dream of being an energy exporter.
Government officials, religious figures, and citizens have been lining up behind the presidentially inspired effort to generate enough cash to complete the long-unfinished Roghun power plant by issuing shares in the state company directly to individuals and organizations.
But while the Tajik Finance Ministry has boasted that more than $90 million worth of Roghun shares were sold on January 6, the first day of trading, many Tajiks view the effort with a skeptical eye.
While the sale has been portrayed as a people's initiative, some say participation is not exactly voluntary and express fears that purchasing Roghun shares will place a severe financial strain on their household budgets. Others recall a similar share sale years ago in which shareholders are still waiting to recoup their investment.
The goal is to raise $1.4 billion -- far short of the estimated $3 billion needed to complete the Soviet-era Roghun project as originally envisioned, with the world's largest dam and six generating units. Officials are optimistic, however, that enough can be raised to complete at least two generating stations, which should help alleviate crippling energy shortages.
The gargantuan project would ideally turn things around to the point that Tajikistan could become a regional energy exporter. But the plan has caused outrage in neighboring Uzbekistan, a downstream country that warns of environmental disaster and fears severe water shortages. Tashkent has lobbied the international community to prevent the project from materializing.
Russia, meanwhile, never delivered on promised funding for the completion of Roghun and has even pulled back its moral support, saying that neighboring countries' views should be considered when embarking on such projects.
As Tajikistan looks to go its own way but remains unable to finance the project itself, President Emomali Rahmon in late 2009 called for shares in Roghun to be issued, and stressed the importance of the initiative during his address to the nation on January 5.
"It is necessary that writers, scientists and the intelligentsia as a whole, experienced elderly people, brave youth, clever and wise men, generous women and mothers of our motherland, political parties, public associations, and religious workers be active in inviting people to this goodwill action, and should set an example to others by making their contribution," Rahmon said.
Media, Mosques Join PR Campaign
The state has pulled out all the stops in its campaign to promote the sale, filling state media broadcasts with images of people extolling the virtues of the sale, and even using state-controlled religious leaders to pitch the idea to their followers.
Obloberdi Haidarov, the imam of Dushanbe's Borbad mosque, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that "investing in such a project is equal to making a religious charity."
"As long as the plant produces energy bringing light and warmth to people's houses, its glory goes to those who have contributed," Haidarov said.
Nevertheless, it would seem to be a hard sell, considering that the average Tajik salary is only $60 per month, according to the state statistics committee. To meet its $1.4 billion goal, the state would need every one of its 7.35 million citizens, young and old, to dole out about $190 each -- or more than three months' salary.
Still, Tajiks turned up in droves in the capital on the first day of sales to purchase shares at 48 selling points set up in Dushanbe by Tajikistan's state-controlled bank, AmonatBank. Altogether 583 sales offices opened across the country, offering share certificates ranging from $23 to $1,145 a piece.
Dushanbe city authorities turned the first day of the campaign to a festive street party, inviting musicians in national costumes to greet people, and distributing the country’s traditional meal, palav, free to potential shareholders.
Officials, war veterans, and religious leaders were seen among the crowds lining up to buy shares.
Tajik media ran stories of how one couple who bought shares in Roghun decided to name their newborn son Rogunshoh in honor of the power station. A baby girl in southern Yovon district has reportedly been named Sahmiya, which means “share” in Tajik.
When the numbers were crunched after the first day of sales, the Finance Ministry announced that 400 million somoni ($91.5 million) had been raised.
The government has insisted that purchasing Roghun certificates is a voluntary action, but some have complained they have been pressured to buy shares or donate money to the power plant project.
Abdullo, an employee of a private business in Dushanbe, who didn't want to give his full name, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that his employer has donated the equivalent of $200 of Abdullah's money toward the Roghun project without his knowledge.
Sharif, a public sector employee who declined to give his full name, said he and colleagues were ordered by their employers to buy shares they "don't want and can't afford."
"The management of our company has made a decision on our behalf that we should buy shares on January 6. I have five children,” Sharif said. “It's difficult for me to afford those shares."
Tajik Service correspondents on the scene in Dushanbe on January 6 reported that of those who spent large amounts of money buying up shares, most were officials and public sector workers.
The construction of Roghun initially began in late 1970s.
Capable of generating 3.6 billion kilowatts of electricity a year, Roghun was to be the most powerful hydroelectric plant in Central Asia and, at 335 meters, the world's highest dam.
But shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the project was frozen and remains unfinished. Although a contract was signed in 2007 with Russian aluminum giant RusAl to resume the project, the deal was cancelled due to disagreements over the scale of the project and Uzbekistan's opposition.
With a number of countries in the region, including China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, expressing their willingness to import electricity, Tajik politicians continued to push the idea.
Some observers, however, remain skeptical about Tajikistan's capacity to complete the project on its own, even if it did raise the cash. They argue that Dushanbe would still depend on foreign countries, at least for qualified specialists.
Buri Karimov, a former Tajik prime minister, notes that cooperation with Uzbekistan is necessary at any rate, because Tajikistan “simply has no other option but to transport the equipment it needs for Roghun through the neighboring country's territory."
It's not the first time Tajik authorities have attempted to sell its people on hydropower.
In 1996, the government sold shares of the Sangtuda 1 power plant to its citizens.
A few years later, the government gave 75 percent of Sangtuda 1 to Russia without consulting shareholders.
Many who bought into that initiative have since resigned themselves to the fact that they have simply lost their money.
President Rahmon has never mentioned the fate of Sangtuda 1 shares, aside from noting that the shares currently on sale come with a state guarantee.