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The National Tea House: Symbol of Tajikistan's Folly

26 Aug 2015

Corruption, poverty, cronyism and chronic food shortages are some of the major issues facing Tajikistan on its road to development. Despite this, President Emomalii Rahmon has embarked on a lavish building boom in Dushanbe in recent years, with one notable standout, the ostentatious National Tea House.

Tajikistan is a country that few Australians turn their minds to. Its recent history, since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of a brutal civil war which lasted from 1992 to 1997, has been largely influenced by the nature of its relationship with Afghanistan. Following much of the Pamir Mountain range, the two countries share a 1206 kilometre border. Australia’s national interest in Tajikistan is limited but largely a product of concerns with stability in the region following the end of the International Security Assistance Force’s mission in Afghanistan, drug trafficking and counter-terrorism, including the number of Tajiks travelling to fight or support the Islamic State. However many of Tajikistan’s bigger problems are internal, particularly as a result of high levels of corruption and cronyism.

Dictators love grand legacy monuments: Ceausescu’s People’s Palace, Niyazov’s Arch of Neutrality and Kim Jong-Il’s numerous statues. Such monuments are a hallmark of many a dictator’s vision, usually located in the capital city as a testament to the perceived prestige and success of the country. Many have been built at considerable expense, costing significant portions of GDP in countries suffering from high rates of poverty.

Tajikistan is no exception. In recent years President Emomalii Rahmon has embarked on a lavish building boom in Dushanbe. The monuments have been exceptional in scale – Central Asia’s largest library, the largest flagpole in the world (since overtaken by the Jeddah flagpole in 2014) and the Presidential Palace. Each of these monuments has been built at great expense in what is one of the poorest countries in the world. Tajikistan’s GDP per capita in 2014 was estimated at $US2,700, only slightly higher than Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. Tajikistan also depends heavily on remittances from Tajiks working in Russia. Food security is a significant issue. One-third of the population is affected by food insecurity, and more than 30 percent of those households are severely food insecure.

The second largest flagpole in the world, with the new Presidential Palace in the background.

The second largest flagpole in the world, with the new Presidential Palace in the background. Photo Credit: Simon Henderson Rights Reserved.

One of the grandest structures in Dushanbe is the National Tea House which was completed in 2014. Some estimates have put the cost of the building at $US60million or roughly 1% of GDP. However given that large portions of the building were constructed at great expense, such as hand carved wood columns, hand painted ceilings and gold leaf throughout, the total cost could be much higher than that. Cronyism is also a likely factor in contributing to the cost of the National Tea House. Construction companies linked to President Rahmon are involved in many of the new buildings popping up in Dushanbe, and corruption is rife. According to the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International, Tajikistan is ranked 152 out of 175 countries. In March President Rahmon’s son, Rustam Emomalii, was appointed to head Tajikistan’s anti-corruption agency. Nepotism is unlikely to be a target of the agency.

The National Tea House in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

The National Tea House in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Photo Credit: Simon Henderson Rights Reserved.

On a recent trip to Tajikistan in July, I was given a guided tour of the National Tea House, one of the few tourists who have been inside. The tour happened by chance. Thinking that visitors were not allowed inside, I took a series of photos of the front of the National Tea House instead. However within a couple of minutes I received a stern talking to from a security guard, closely followed by his conciliatory attempt to solicit a bribe. Not willing to pay the bribe, I walked around the National Tea House and found a small shop whereupon I was approached by someone offering a guided tour. For 25 Somoni or roughly $A5, what followed was an illuminating tour highlighting excess and indulgence in a young, poor country, ruled by a powerful dictator.

The National Tea House was first used for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in September 2014. Features from that meeting are still present and are a permanent part of the building. For example, on the upper floor next to the main meeting hall is a room with flags of the SCO countries inlaid to a wall of mirrors. During the SCO it was used for official presentations by country Presidents. Its ceiling, like many others throughout the building, is all hand painted in colourful and intricate Tajik style designs.

However that room is by no means the most grandiose in the building. That honour probably belongs to the primary meeting room where all Presidents of SCO countries, Rahmon, Putin, Xi, Nazarbayev, Atambayev and Karimov, sat around the table. It is an incredible sight to behold. The large columns outside the central table are adorned with mirrors and marble in shades of blue, white and green. The ceiling is hand carved wood with gold leaf inlay. The centrepiece is a grand chandelier weighing more than 2 tonnes.  At the far end of the room is a mosaic of President Rahmon with his mother, which is a peculiar addition reminding guests of the ‘benevolence’ of the President.

A large mosaic of President Rahmon and his mother adorns the wall the meeting room for leaders in the National Tea House

A large mosaic of President Rahmon and his mother adorns the wall the meeting room for leaders in the National Tea House

During the tour I was constantly reminded about which areas were public by my guide. Near the entrance is a bowling alley, billiards hall and a movie theatre, all apparently accessible to the public. However the cost of using the facilities put them out of the range of the average Tajik person. For example, a bowling session cost up to 140 Somoni or roughly $A30. Evidently, the National Tea House is targeted at a select group of people who have the financial capacity to use the facilities.

The National Tea House is undoubtedly a spectacular building which is evocative of similar ostentatious buildings, such as the Palace of Versailles. However, in a country where poverty and food insecurity looms large it is a gross and unnecessary expense. Tajikistan has an obligation under international law to ensure that its commitments under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are upheld. As the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended in its Concluding Observations issued in March 2015, steps need to be taken to address chronic food insecurity, high infant mortality, lack of access to safe drinking water and inadequate sanitation. In the meantime the National Tea House will remain a stark reminder of fiscal waste in Tajikistan and President Rahmon’s overbearing influence.

Simon Henderson is a Senior Policy Lawyer, Human Rights, at the Law Council of Australia. The views expressed in the article are of the author’s and do not reflect views of his employer. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.