Tajikistan has joined the list of Central Asian countries rumored to be planning to relocate its capital.
The construction of a new international airport in tiny Dangara, 100 kilometers southeast of Dushanbe, has invited speculation that President Emomali Rakhmon plans to relocate the seat of government there, RFE/RL reports.
That speculation began in earnest back in July, when Rakhmon’s advisor, semi-official policy weathervane, and then-director of the state-run Strategic Research Center, Sukhrob Sharipov said, “it is necessary to say goodbye to the Soviet past in all things, including the capital, Dushanbe.” Sharipov posited that Dushanbe is a “small town, not designed to handle the overloading it now experiences,” proposing three still smaller towns as possible replacements — Dangara, Kulyab, and Penjikent. Journalists and analysts uniformly dismissed the latter two, particularly Penjikent, which is often cut off from the rest of the country in winter. But Dangara, interestingly, is Rakhmon’s hometown.
In recent years, the Tajik government has invested millions in Dangara’s infrastructure, improving the main west-east highway that runs through and linking it to the nearby railway that once bypassed it. Other cosmetic improvements have been conspicuous, particularly in comparison to neglected regions of the country further afield.
In an information-starved and arbitrarily governed part of the world, such speculation spreads easily.
But when Nazarbayev moved Kazakhstan’s capital from the majestically — if not centrally — located Almaty to the windswept void of Akmola (now Astana), in 1997, he had at least had a slew of reasonable reasons for doing so. Overcoming growth constraints, placating regional factions, and contriving a post-Soviet national and personal spectacle were all among them. Of course, Kazakhstan’s government ended up having the money to make these ambitions possible. Tajikistan does not, in any practical sense.
The other Central Asian government with the largesse to undertake such an endeavor is Turkmenistan, though it emerged from post-Soviet economic and fiscal crisis later than Kazakhstan, and has yet to catch up. Rather, Niyazov preferred to re-imagine and re-claim Ashgabat, an entirely Russian invention, as his national-cum-personal showcase. Unlike Almaty, Ashgabat lays squarely between the competing regional factions of Turkmenistan, and in the arms of its central, most numerous, and de-facto titular tribe, the Tekke. Niyazov, a Tekke, was born in one suburb of Ashgabat, cut his teeth at a power plant in another, and climbed to pre-eminence through Ashgabat’s Soviet apparatus.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov — Niyazov’s progeny in all but the biological sense — is from a small village outside Geok-Tepe, 100 kilometers northwest of Ashgabat, within Tekke territory. Berdymukhamedov has been less coy with his regional biases than his predecessor. Muted speculation spread through the politically conscious populace in 2008 that the capital might be moved to Geok-Tepe, or that the lines of several provinces might be redrawn to create a new province based around his exclusive sub-clique of Tekkes. Both Turkmen presidents set this precedent, redrawing lines to create ‘new’ districts for internal resettlement. The resulting new district capitals are usually distinguished by their pleasant, innocuous names and barren, desert locations.
During the reign of southern-Kyrgyzstan native Kurmanbek Bakiyev, rumors, proposals, and half-baked plans that the capital would be moved from Bishkek to Osh were rampant. Despite his 2010 ouster, they persist. Sadly, no move of Kyrgyzstan’s capital would overcome the formidable political and economic weaknesses imposed by the country’s emblematic mountain ranges. Both cities, and other town of significance, lay in valleys that orient themselves more to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, or China than to any other Kyrgyz bastion. Besides, Kyrgyzstan already attempted the more modest endeavor to relocate the capital of the northern Chui Province from Bishkek to Tokmok in 2003, only to see that project end in failure and reversed in 2006 at significant expense.
Which brings us back to Tajikistan. Economically and politically, a move from Dushanbe to Dangara, or anywhere else for that matter, would be disastrous. The post-civil war status quo arrangement that holds Tajikistan together is extraordinary only in the sense that it does indeed hold. Dushanbe, while limited in its geographic growth potential by its position along hilly outcroppings and above crowded valleys, remains a geographic compromise between the country’s rival factions based around Khujand, Kulyab, Kurgan-Tube and Garm. Meanwhile, there is nothing obviously wrong with Dushanbe’s airfield, which, while restricted from growth by its location on and between hills and only blocks from downtown, seems up to the task of handling the dozen flights a day that are in demand.
Tajiks uniformly associate Dangara, a simple cotton-farming town, with Rakhmon’s clan, against whom resentment percolates from almost everywhere else. Rather than bring the capital home, Rakhmon would be better advised to continue his reverse geographic engineering. The running joke about the clear-cutting of stately plane trees from Dushanbe’s central park is that the president wanted his capital to resemble his semi-arid Dangara.
Assuming that Rakhmon has himself come to these conclusions, what purpose would a massive new airport in his humble hometown serve? Though data is hard to find, anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant portion of the heroin smuggled through the country travels in air passengers’ carry-on luggage.
Originally published at EurasiaNet.