Time running out for wrecker of Tajikistan’s internet as Rahmon loses temper

Time running out for wrecker of Tajikistan’s internet as Rahmon loses temper
Beg Sabur looking sheepish at the January 24 government meeting. / Tajikistan presidential admin press service
By Eurasianet February 3, 2023

Tajikistan’s leader has slated the usually untouchable head of the state communications service, a man to whom he is related by marriage, for the dismal state of internet provision in the country. 

Speaking at a government meeting on January 24, President Emomali Rahmon singled out Beg Sabur for criticism for his handling of the telecommunications sector. 

Sabur has since that time been dispatched to the remote Pamirs town of Murghab, where internet users still have to rely on glacially slow second-generation cellular connections, to begin tackling the problem. Meanwhile, internet service providers and the telecommunications regulator are all busily scrambling to meet Rahmon’s demands.

Rahmon has been grumbling about the state of the internet for a while now. During an address to parliament in December, he drew a direct correlation between the difficulty of getting online and the sad state of the tourism industry.

“Basically, where do tourists go?” he asked. “Where there is good internet.”

Tourist operators weary with the glitchy e-visa system, the lack of international transport connections and what industry insiders overwhelmingly agree is the lacklustre quality of the government’s tourism officials might offer a more elaborate explanation, but that Tajik internet is appalling is certainly a fact.

Tajikistan routinely ranks toward the bottom of international standings in terms of value for money offered by internet providers. Peer nations where it concerns mobile connections typically include the likes of Cuba and Venezuela. One gigabyte of data can cost anywhere around $3. Things are a little better, although not much, with landline connections. The problem cannot be blamed on geography either. Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan can boast of internet that is both cheap and fast. 

Remedying this impasse is going to be complicated, though, since the cash-strapped government has repeatedly stung service providers for windfalls through spurious tax-related fines.

“In the past, the Tax Committee has fined mobile companies and [internet service providers] for large sums. They got $20 million from Tcell, for example, and about $70 million from Babilon,” a telecommunications service official told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity. “Now mobile companies have no money, or they are not interested [in making investments]. They are entrepreneurs, you can’t push them too much.”

Whereas Tajikistan’s privately owned mobile telecommunications service providers were racking up revenues of around $500mn in 2013, that figure had dropped to around $282mn in 2022.

Rahmon has been inconsistent in his messaging on modern telecommunications. While he is inveighing at the lack of it now, he has previously spoken out against what he perceived as excessive dependence on mobile phones.

“We need to rethink the culture of using mobile phones,” he told parliament in December 2021. “There is no need to rejoice at this. In the future there may be serious problems as a result, and people will succumb to various diseases, such as brain cancer.”

Rahmon also grumbled at how much people were spending on their phones. The $3bn that Tajiks have shelled out on communicating with one another over the period of a decade could have covered the cost of building his pet project, the Rogun hydropower plant, he moaned.

Sabur, the head of the telecommunications regulator since 2011, has been an unwittingly efficient ally in deterring Tajiks from effectively using technology. As a World Bank report published in August 2019 found, what was once a promising sector has languished under Sabur’s tutelage.

“Despite modest improvements to international bandwidth [to about 6-8 Gbps], Tajikistan’s data transmission speeds remain the slowest among regional peers and other small, landlocked countries,” the World Bank report stated at the time. “Such slow international bandwidth speeds cannot support significant increases in trade in services, the development of a knowledge economy, or reposition Tajikistan as a regional hub.”

If Sabur has managed to hold onto his seat for so long, it is mainly by virtue of his family ties to Rahmon. His son, Ramz, is married to one of the president’s daughters, Zarina.

Few are under any illusion as to what lies at the heart of this situation. It is an open secret that Sabur and his relatives have profited handsomely from their own commercial interests in the captured telecoms sector. 

In one illustrative episode from 2018, Sabur ordered his staff to inspect Wi-Fi routers at public venues like cafes and restaurants. His agency explained that the check was motivated by their wish to protect public health.

"Sometimes we are seeing the use of Chinese routers that are harmful to people’s health. Our responsibility is to prevent this,” one unnamed telecommunications service official told local media at the time.

It later emerged that businesses offering public Wi-Fi were being compelled to source their internet from a provider called Oshno-Group. That company turned out to belong to another of Sabur’s five known sons – Siyovush Zuhurov.

This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.