‘You Don’t Kill a Story by Killing a Journalist’
Three years ago today, Corinne Vella received a call that would forever change her family, her life, and even her homeland, the small Mediterranean island of Malta.
In most countries, it would be unusual for the president to personally attend the opening of even one driving school.
Tajikistan is a little different. President Rahmon’s website lists at least four separate events during which he has cut ribbons, observed instruction, and even taken a spin in the cars himself.
His close attention to this industry is easy to explain. Through its subsidiaries, Faroz operates a network of six “autodromes” and seven driving schools (with plans for dozens more), which provide training and examination services and also issue licenses.
Until early 2016, the country’s market for these services was vibrant, with over 340 schools in operation. But that January, the rules changed in favor of Faroz. A joint commission of several government agencies conducted a mass inspection of the schools, subsequently canceling licenses for 220, or nearly 65 percent of them, based on the perceived low quality of instruction.
In addition, the few schools that remained on the market were required to operate using Faroz’s autodromes.
An owner of one of Dushanbe’s driving schools who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions says that after the changes, prices nearly doubled. “Training used to cost from 300-350 somoni ($37-43) on average. Now, you can’t find [a school] cheaper than 500 Somoni (US$ 55),” he said.
Through the “Driver and Transport” association, which is registered at Faroz’s headquarters, the company may have indirectly had a seat on the commission deciding which schools would keep operating.
In order to continue operating, the driving schools must now buy or rent all their equipment, including their cars, from the association — a requirement they have complained about in a public letter. They must also have their driving instructors trained there on a regular basis. In response to reporters’ questions, a representative of the association insisted that purchasing equipment from it is not mandatory.
Once a lucky Tajik buys a car and passes the exams, he is still stuck paying Faroz — this time to a subsidiary called Faroz Aiti — to get his license plates and biometric driver’s license. But in contrast to the smooth takeover of the driving school market, monopolizing the car registration industry was a bumpier ride.
In 2007-2009, all license plates in Tajikistan were produced by a local company called Durnamo. In 2009, the government procurement agency announced a new tender to produce 100,000 plates.
According to Abubakr Azizkhodzhaev, Durnamo’s head, the company was competing with three other applicants for the tender. Durnamo’s bid was a fixed price of $7 per plate until 2020.
But the tender was won by Faroz, offering a lower price. And, as Azizkhodzhaev explains, it soon became apparent that Sakhibov’s company couldn’t do the job, as it lacked the equipment and experience to produce the plates.
Subsequently the road traffic department awarded Durnamo the right to produce 50,000 plates, and suggested that Faroz partner with them on the order, which according to Azizkhodzhaev, Faroz refused.
Soon afterwards, he says, the road traffic department refused to pay the company for the 50,000 plates it had manufactured.
Azizkhodzhaev decided to go public, appealing to President Rahmon via the local media. In response, Faroz sued him for damaging its business reputation, demanding almost US$ 45,000 in compensation. The court ruled in favor of Faroz and, according to Azizkhodzhaev, confiscated Durnamo’s equipment in payment for the damages.
In February 2016, Azizkhodzhaev was charged with inciting “national, racial, regional, or religious hatred” in what Human Rights Watch said was the result of his public allegations of government corruption. In August 2016, he was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.
Tajiks are left having to pay US$ 24 for Faroz-produced license plates. This is over three times the price of those manufactured by Durnamo.
In 2017, the government made what appears to be yet another gift to Faroz, “recommending” that the country’s drivers replace their old licenses and plates by December 1 or face fines of up to US$ 17. According to a statement by the road police, obtaining a new license would cost US$ 38, while a new license plate would cost US$ 48. The profits will accrue to Faroz.