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Published: June 10th 2013
On the wrong side of the law - Tajikistan
Issuing "speeding tickets". Taken via the side mirror of the vehicle I was in so as not to be noticed.
It is impossible to visit Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and not notice the police presence. There is at least one member of the constabulary on every block, usually busying themselves waving down cars. Those who drove the Hyundai police vehicles never used the siren or lights if they needed an unimpeded passage through the traffic, but instead, strangely pronounced their coming through loudspeakers. The law in Central Asia has a poor reputation for corruption, but I saw nothing untoward in Almaty. However, parts of Tajikistan ensured that this reputation remains strong.
Dushanbe's main thoroughfare, Radaki, was a pleasant tree-lined street whose residential buildings, though of weary appearance, were visually appealing in their mostly pastel colours that bore a resemblance to edifices in Eastern Europe. There were some larger public structures and these were palatial in both size and appearance, but the shops were far more modest, with the majority offering money changing services in addition to their usual business.
The residents of Dushanbe were quite willing to approach me, mostly to practice their English, but some who genuinely wanted to ensure I enjoyed their city. These included young men looking very smart in their conservative jackets, and the
women who mostly wore light and multi-coloured flowing dresses and headscarves –with African animal patterns being particularly favoured.
I frequently visited Bag-i-Radaki, a large park with thousands of roses, plentiful water features and the occasional statue. Once whilst wandering and listening to my MP3, I espied a young student who was attending to her music player. She glanced and smiled at me whenever I passed, so I sauntered towards her and gestured if I could listen to her music. Since neither of us spoke each others language, she nodded in agreement and I was introduced to Tajik pop songs, slightly reminiscent of the equivalent in Turkey. She invited me to sit down and by sharing my headphones, I played Australian bands - Australian Crawl, Cold Chisel, Powderfinger, and Russell Morris. She seemed pleased with this selection. After half an hour she departed, and our music session had again demonstrated that music is an international language that can surmount any barriers of different tongues.
So it was against his pleasant encounter that I meandered back to my hotel room at the Hotel Tajikmatlubot, an establishment more suited to visiting Soviet officials from days past than an modern day Australian
Bag-i Rudaki - Dushanbe, Tajikistan
The White House (seat of parliament) is in the background.
traveller. With the subdued light of the late afternoon lifting the pastel tones on the buildings, I busily photographed a theatre, but being too large for my wide-angle lens, I stepped onto the narrow strip of grass between the pavement and road to continue photographing.
I can faintly recall the sound of a whistle coming from my left. I thought nothing of it and continued framing my photograph, and needed to squat to capture the whole building. It was upon standing that my attention was drawn to a gruff looking policeman to my left pointing at me and blowing his whistle. He beckoned me to a place further away from the street, but I deliberately shifted towards a bus shelter occupied by several people. Isolating myself from public view at this time was most unwise.
He strode over with a swagger and demanded my passport. Knowing that police encounters were likely in Central Asia, I followed the advice in Lonely Planet
and carried a photocopy of both my passport identification page and relevant (Tajik) visa. The rationale being that walking away from a dubious official is far easier when they only hold a photocopy of your passport instead
Flight from Almaty to Dushanbe
Most scenic flight I have ever had.
of the genuine article.
He scrutinised the passport and visa copies, and sensing all was in order, launched his attack on my grass walking indiscretion. He was vigorous in his tone, pointing at the grass and talking at speed, which was totally lost of me for I understood almost no Tajik. However, I did comprehend one word oft repeated – somani
– the name of the Tajik currency. This was usually accompanied shortly after with a writing motion – possibly indicating a written offence.
He again tried to motion me further away from the road and the bus shelter, but I moved only two steps away and a step back a few moments later. At this time he stepped onto another sidewalk area intended for grass, but only contained a few blades. I pointed at where he was standing and he flippantly dismissed my comparison as the current location contained hardly any grass. Further, I had seen plenty of other people walking and even sitting on the grass and nobody seemed bothered.
It was obvious what was occurring – he was trying to extract money from me, but I am not easily intimidated, he had picked the
wrong target. I decided that the worst approach for me was to show even the slightest comprehension of his statements, so I only replied in English (repeated variations of “I don’t understand”) to heighten the confusion. This mixed Tajik/English “conversation” continued for another two minutes when it seemed his will was weakening. This was confirmed when he returned my photocopies, and my steady, direct gaze at him changed to one of contriteness. I apologised for my supposed error with expressive gestures and offered my hand for a handshake. He responded in kind and we smiled, exchanged names and bid each other farewell.
Further encounters with the law were realised two days later when I hired a driver for the journey to Ishkashim. My driver, Amzi, possessed a round face and balding head that framed a warm smile and kind eyes. Unfortunately, encounters with the law were worse for Amzi for he understood Tajik. At our first checkpoint Amzi reached for his identification papers and slipped two somani
in-between the pages. When he caught me watching his actions, Amzi raised his eyebrows and walked away. I witnessed other drivers following the same procedure. This perhaps explains the vigour with which
police were halting drivers in Dushanbe.
Amzi returned, shook his head, and asked me if corruption occurred in Australia. I replied “no” to which he responded with great force “Everywhere here!” He statement proved correct for during the entire 700 kilometre journey there was only one checkpoint (from approximately eight where we halted) where he did not pay a bribe, and this occurred in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO) of eastern Tajikistan. As I was to later discover, the police in the GBAO did not seem prone to the corruption that I had experienced in the western part of the country.
The most distressing incident for Amzi occurred when he was halted for supposedly speeding and was required to pay a 200 somani
fine. I watched how the two police operated from the side mirror of Amzi’s vehicle. One sat in the car accepting payment whilst the other walked between the police car, already stopped drivers, and the road. Whenever he approached the carriageway, he always waved down the next car without the benefit of a speed radar. It appeared completely arbitrary with little regard to the speed of the cars. I even doubt that Amzi was speeding.
I very rarely level any criticism about countries in my blogs, but I passionately despise corruption, and the police corruption on show in parts of Tajikistan was brazen, endemic and unfettered. Information from Transparency International
often states that corruption on this scale weakens public trust. Whether the cause be underpaid police or greed, the result undermines this nation as it strives to increase tourism and its presence on the regional stage.
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