Grace and Favour in Tajikistan

Police and other officials at the heart of the system get hefty pay rises, which critics say are a ploy to keep them on board for a crucial election later this year.

Grace and Favour in Tajikistan

Police and other officials at the heart of the system get hefty pay rises, which critics say are a ploy to keep them on board for a crucial election later this year.

Pay rises are being handed out to public sector workers in Tajikistan, but the fact that some are getting more than others has led to suspicions that the regime is favouring groups such as the police whose support it needs most ahead of this year’s presidential election.

The uneven pay increases will only accentuate income divisions in this acutely poor country.

The pay rises are the first phase of a much wider reform of public sector remuneration. Parliament has approved a set of legislative amendments which from April 1 will raise earnings for police and other security agencies, the military, and court and prosecution staff.

Employees in these areas will get a basic monthly salary plus supplements for rank and length of service. The weighting for rank has been increased threefold while the length-of-service payment can be equivalent to between two and ten times the basic wage award.

The whole affair is shrouded in secrecy as the new legislation says merely that the scale of wages and supplements is “decided by the president”. A finance ministry source told IWPR that police and military salaries are not written down in any of the documents seen by the ministry, which is responsible for disbursing government funds.

On Tajikistan’s Police Day, February 6, President Imomali Rahmonov said in a speech that staff in the interior ministry – which controls the uniformed police – would get pay increases of between 20 and 40 per cent.

“Over the last five years, government budgetary funding for the interior [ministry] agencies has increased by 53 per cent, and in 2006 it will rise by 33 per cent on last year,” said Rahmonov.

The president also referred to substantial fringe benefits introduced for police in 2004, promising that conditions would improve further. For instance, two apartment blocks have been built for interior ministry staff.

Rahmatillo Zoirov, who is head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, is certain that the pay award is a deliberate attempt to buy the support of the law-enforcement and security agencies, whose backing will be important to President Rahmonov when he stands for re-election this November.

“All the legislative amendments create privileges for people with administrative powers,” he said.

The pay awards do not seem to reflect past performance. In the same speech, President Rahmonov said offences by recidivists rose 14 per cent last year, while crimes committed by minors and by groups rather than individuals went up by about five per cent. At least criminal prosecutions had to be dropped because of insufficient evidence, while eight were dismissed because there was no indication any crime had been committed.

Other groups who will benefit from the pay round include members of parliament, who currently get 170 US dollars a month, although side benefits can increase this to 300 dollars.

In the rest of the public sector, the pay award looks quite respectable, on paper at least. Staff in education, healthcare and science will be paid 40 per cent more, and the social services will get increases. Even university and college students will see their grants rise by 40 or 50 per cent.

But the difference is that – unlike the police - these salaries are so low in the first place that pay rises that look impressive in percentage terms will translate into only a few dollars, leaving most still struggling to survive. To take parliament as an example, a civil servant who heads a department gets just 32 dollars a month, while staff support staff and cleaners earn as little as 10 dollars.

One scientist told IWPR how he has been reduced to selling items from his home at the market as his wife is ill and he cannot afford medicine or food on his tiny wages.

“I am like an outcast from a society in which [only] those who are dishonest or are close to the authorities live well,” said the scientist, who asked not to be named because he achieved some fame for his research in the Soviet period. “Despite my many years of intensive work in science, I am unable to get a salary or pension sufficient to lead even a modest life.”

According to Tajikistan’s State Statistics Committee, the lowest public-sector wages are those in agriculture, health and education, ranging between five and 20 dollars monthly. Average earnings nationwide, including the private as well as public sector, are slightly higher at about 25 dollars a month, but that figure still compares badly with the cost of a minimum monthly consumer basket, which the labour ministry puts at 64 dollars.

World Bank data indicate high levels of poverty, with some 64 per cent of the population living below the subsistence line.

Mukaddas Nasirova, a widow with two children, works at the state-owned Tajikselkhozvodoprovodstroy factory which makes agricultural irrigation equipment, and cannot survive on her wages alone.

“I get paid about 12 dollars,” she said. “In order to feed my children, I got another job, so I wash the floors at another organisation until late in the evening, for which I get another eight dollars [a month]. But that’s still not enough for us to get by on.”

Nasirova’s solution is one that has already been found by many in Tajikistan. “My elder son is planning to go to work in Russia, otherwise we won’t be able to live on my salary,” she explained.

Many experts believe Tajikistan would come close to economic collapse if it were not for the remittances sent home by hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers, most of whom go to Russia.

Professor Khojimuhammad Umarov attributes the statistical reduction in poverty levels entirely to migrant earnings abroad.

“There’s actually no increase in people’s standard of living going on here, in terms of resources created within the nation itself. Yes, there is a rise in living standards, but it’s entirely due to foreign sources, by which I mean revenues from foreign labour migration.

“If it weren’t for this revenue, it is difficult even to imagine what would happen to Tajikistan.”

Rakhmatillo Zoiirov agrees with this view, concluding as a result that “raising salaries will not have the effect of improving living standards or reducing social tensions”.

One common way of supplementing earnings in the public-sector is to take bribes in return for services.

At the bottom end of the wage scale, people justify this practice by saying they would be unable to survive otherwise.

“Teachers are often accused of taking bribes, but no one thinks about how they’d survive if they didn’t have additional sources of income,” said a mathematics teacher at a school in Dushanbe school. This teacher, who did not want to be named, said her monthly salary of about 10 dollars is enough to keep her family going for just three days.

A doctor in the Vakhsh district of southern Tajikistan told a similar story, “They accuse us of taking money from patients, but were it not for that, I’d have to give up working as a doctor, as you can’t live for two days on this salary.”

Ironically, it is the well-paid officers of the state, who are about to benefit further in the latest pay round, who are among the worst offenders when it comes to corruption.

A survey conducted last October by the Strategic Studies Centre, which comes under President Rahmonov’s office, found that Tajikistan’s most corrupt officials were in the taxation, customs, and prosecution services, in the courts, and in other government departments with control over state assets.

“The trend is for corruption in state institutions not just to grow, but to become institutionalised and legalised,” said the centre’s head, Sukhrob Sharipov. “State agencies organise their internal procedures in such a way that they’re able to collect various additional incomes… so that this becomes a secondary form of taxation.”

Zoirov believes the pay rise will have little real impact for corrupt police officers, who have “long since forgotten what it means to live on a salary”.

“They have many other sources of income, and even a significant salary increase is unimportant to them.”

Valentina Kasymbekova is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.

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