Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajikistan's Lacklustre Anti-Corruption Effort

Efforts to improve Tajik government’s reputation have produced some tentative steps, but a lot more needs to be done.
By Akbar Sharifi

The Tajik government’s much-advertised move to stamp out corruption has had some success but has not gone anywhere near far enough to have any real impact, experts warn.


An anti-corruption department was set up within the prosecutor general’s office in June this year with a specific mandate to review the education and health sectors, widely viewed as among the worst offenders.


As well as cracking down on criminal behaviour, Dushanbe hoped to improve its image in the eyes of international lenders and investors who are reluctant to put money into the impoverished former Soviet republic if it is going to be purloined.


Prosecutor General Bobojon Bobokhonov recently announced that more than 50 criminal cases – including a number of high profile ones – had been launched since the new department started its work.


But critics claim that the majority of cases tackled to date have mostly involved low-level corruption, while the few high-profile prosecutions have been politically motivated.


Legal analyst Junaid Ibodov told IWPR that the government’s drive was not as effective as it looked, as only “small fry” were being brought to court.


“Corruption is deeply rooted in the administration and organisation of power in the centre and the regions,” he warned.


Ten of the cases launched after a two-month investigation into the Tajik education system are said to implicate the heads of a number of Dushanbe secondary schools, who are accused of taking bribes of around 110,000 US dollars between them.


Tajikistan’s health and education systems are currently in the grip of a serious financial crisis. As well as not having enough money for materials and repairs, salaries in both sectors are the lowest in the country. The average monthly wage for teachers and doctors is currently 15 and eight dollars respectively.


As a result, corruption is commonplace as desperate employees take any opportunity to supplement their meagre wages.


Bribes are paid by parents eager to secure a place for their children in schools and universities – and more money then changes hands to ensure good exam marks.


One Dushanbe resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “I had to pay a thousand dollars to ensure that my daughter was enrolled at a medical university, and her exams cost me another 150 dollars every month.”


Corruption is not confined to teachers and administrators. One secondary school teacher in the capital told IWPR that the father of one pupil is a serving law-enforcement officer who thinks nothing of extorting money from the school.


“He is not ashamed to come to the school, threaten the staff and take monthly payments of nearly a dollar per pupil out of the school fund, to which parents donate money for the good of their children,” said the teacher angrily.


Analyst Zafar Abdullaev told IWPR that while the education and health systems are undoubtedly corrupt, the judiciary and law enforcement agencies should have been targeted first.


“Today there is a situation when individual corrupt judges, prosecutors and tax inspectors have created legal chaos in the country, as a result of which gross violations of human rights are being committed,” he claimed.


Aside from its choice of targets, the government has also come under fire for targeting certain big fish with corruption charges, when the real reasons may be political.


One well-placed government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Tajik leadership holds so-called “black files” full of potentially compromising information on all high-ranking officials. He claims that if an individual steps out of line or becomes too ambitious, the evidence in these dossiers is used against them. In this way, the authorities rid themselves of a troublesome opponent while at the same time claiming to be rooting out corruption.


Analysts point to the ongoing case of former presidential guard commander Ghafur Mirzoev as an example.


Mirzoev protested when he was removed from his post by the president in January 2004, and was later appointed as head of Tajikistan’s prestigious anti-narcotics agency. But seven months later, he was arrested and charged with several counts of illegal activity including murder, theft and corruption. He is alleged to have concealed 600,000 dollars of income from the tax service, misused land allocated to the presidential guard, and committed other abuses.


An anonymous source in the law-enforcement agencies told IWPR, “Mirzoev was involved in illegal commercial activity for several years but the authorities turned a blind eye to it. But when he had criticised the president, the prosecutor’s office revealed the extent of his alleged wrongdoing, and put him under arrest.”


Although Mirzoev has denied guilt and his trial has not even begun, the property he is alleged to have misappropriated has already been seized by the state, including a restaurant and casino in the centre of Dushanbe and the capital’s only meat factory, resulting in the loss of some 500 jobs.


Another high-profile figure whom analysts believe may be the victim of a politically-motivated prosecution is Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, leader of the opposition Democratic Party and the former head of state gas company Tajikgaz.


Iskandarov was arrested this week in Moscow at the request of Tajikistan, although it is unclear what charges he faces if extradited from Russia. Tajikgaz was recently the target of a government anti-corruption swoop.


But analysts say Dushanbe is annoyed that Iskandarov broke a promise he allegedly made to President Imomali Rahmonov not to take his party into a coalition with other opposition groups. He changed his mind when he saw the amendments made to the electoral law in July 2004, which discriminate against smaller parties.


Tajikistan’s poverty and poor social conditions – the result of the brutal five-year civil war that rocked the country after it gained its independence in 1991 – have encouraged all-pervasive levels of corruption that in turn have damaged the republic’s international standing and discouraged much-needed outside investment.


Transparency International’s 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Tajikistan way down its list at number 133.


However, prosecutor Bobokhonov does not agree that his country is much worse than anywhere else.


“Corruption in Tajikistan has always existed, and will always exist, but in comparison with developed countries it is much lower,” he said. “Our state budget is such that it does not make it possible to steal on the level seen in developed countries.”


President Rahmonov has reacted to international criticism by pointing out that Tajikistan is not alone, “This government is accused of corruption, but name me a country where it does not exist.”


Daniel Zuest, head of the Swiss Cooperation Office in Dushanbe, said that he was treating the anti-corruption moves with scepticism. The low salaries paid to state employees made bribery endemic, he said, and until this problem was rectified, international donors could not be expected to become actively involved in helping the government.


Shigeo Katsu, vice-president of the World Bank, recently told a donor meeting that Tajikistan was “one of the least attractive countries in the world for investors”, and analysts agree that foreign firms who wish to invest capital face a series of difficulties linked to corruption.


The United Nations classes Tajikistan as one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 60 per cent of its people living below the poverty line. And yet there are signs of extreme wealth all over the capital.


Dushanbe resident Nigina said that as a state employee she knew full well that many high-ranking officials do not earn much more than 50 dollars a month, but she added, “in my district, mansions costing at least half a million dollars are springing up like mushrooms.


“I wonder where that money came from?”


Akbar Sharifi is an independent journalist in Dushanbe.


More IWPR's Global Voices