Despite its dubious distinction as the poorest capital in Central Asia, Dushanbe is experiencing an expensive urban makeover that is exacting a high social cost.
In early January, officials in the Tajik capital notified some downtown residents that their buildings would be demolished to make room for new apartment blocks. “High-rise buildings will be erected on these territories,” the official notification letter stated. “We warn you that your apartment is situated in this zone.”
Confused residents fear they will not be properly compensated for being displaced. “They will just throw us a small part of the real cost of the apartment,” says an elderly resident of one building slated for demolition. “We don’t want to end our days somewhere on the outskirts of town, in a tiny apartment with no facilities,” she says, crying, asking for anonymity out of fear of government retaliation.
Just 500 meters from her home stands the new, elite Poitakht (“Capital”) complex, rumored to be financed by recently ousted Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Few Tajiks can afford to purchase an apartment in the building, where prices range from $50,000 to $500,000, a sales representative confirmed. About half of Tajikistan’s estimated 7.5 million population lives below the poverty line. A good monthly salary in Dushanbe is considered to be $200-$300.
Dushanbe authorities began notifying residents in 2007 that some central districts could be slated for redevelopment. That year, officials in Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidullaev’s administration ordered thousands of residents of early 20th century buildings lining historic Rudaki Avenue, Dushanbe’s main thoroughfare, not to undertake any refurbishments, or to sell their properties. Shortly thereafter, property prices around Dushanbe soared.
Later in 2007, the state-run General Architectural Office concluded that Dushanbe’s center needed 200 nine-story blocks with 36 apartments in each block in order to accommodate the city’s burgeoning population.
Though they had long feared their buildings were included on the “blacklist,” central Dushanbe residents realized the plan was no joke when, overnight on January 4, authorities razed a historic, four-story downtown building. Locals believe the building partially obstructed the view of the new Palace of the Nation, where President Emomali Rahmon keeps an office.
Given the lack of transparency surrounding the official decision-making process, many Dushanbe residents believe the push for urban renewal is led by authorities seeking to profit. “This is nonsense,” said another resident being pushed out of his home on Rudaki Avenue. “The notifications we received said, ‘The district administration needs this territory for its own purposes.’ We intend to find out what kind of needs those are, and who in particular wants to get this lucrative piece of land. Most probably, it is for building a new business center or another fancy hotel.”
Mikhail Penkov lives in a historic 1930s building on Rudaki with his wife and daughter. "We are bewildered. … [These buildings] are the steadiest houses with very thick brick walls,” he explained. “We learned this from professional architects after we received that ridiculous notification from the district authorities.”
After receiving their eviction notices, Penkov says, he and his neighbors visited the head of the district to find out who issued and signed the notification. They were told the orders were issued “from above.”
Dushanbe’s former chief architect, Rustam Karimov, says the notifications are invalid. “In order to make a decision on demolition of a particular house, there must be a conclusion of a special commission comprising certain specialists – architects, historians, seismologists,” asserted Karimov. “Those sending such notifications scaring and terrifying our residents must bear responsibility.”
In addition to uprooting residents, the demolitions threaten the city’s architectural gems only to replace them with buildings that may not be able to withstand Dushanbe’s frequent tremors.
Speaking of several three-story apartment buildings slated for demolition -- one opposite the National Library, one opposite the Academy of Sciences, and one near the Opera and Ballet Theater on Rudaki -- Sabit Negmatullaev, the former president of the Tajik Academy of Sciences, told EurasiaNet.org; “These are some of the first houses designed by the Leningrad architects in the so-called Stalinist Renaissance style. These buildings have both historical and architectural value, and it would be absolutely senseless to destroy them.”
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.